Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Maintaining the humanity of the public square


There is and always has been a certain grandeur about Frank Brennan, combined with an elegance and a formidable intelligence, and an ability to be present at key moments in the political landscape, from Mabo to East Timor to discussions on a bill of rights, to scandals affecting the Church, the asylum seekers, and the debates on same-sex marriage and euthanasia. Topicality is one of the many strengths of this book tonight. But one would have to be in awe of Frank’s ability to choose the timing of this launch, in the week when we commemorate the eight hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta, the document that put even the King under the law, and began the codification in law of the rights of the citizen. And concurrently, the launch of Pope Francis' encyclical. Well done, Frank!

I have read every page of this book, and have found it informative and inspiring, provocative and encouraging. I have taken great pride in being able to claim brotherhood with the author as a Jesuit. Frank has walked the Australian stage invited to address a whole range of believers and unbelievers, invited because of their respect for his erudition and integrity, and the values background out of which he speaks

Frank is his father’s son, and Sir Gerard Brennan in his judicial career and on the High Court, and since, has been a notable defender of conscience in our Australian polity. Signiificantly, Frank has dedicated this volume to his parents, Gerard and Patricia, with a phrase of fine import – 'to Gerard and Patricia, who made a home for conscience'. Frank’s parents instilled in him the highest respect for integrity and conscience, the small, still voice that often needs amplifying.

This occasion is taking place in a Jesuit parish, where Frank has given many commentaries and we are under the benign eye of the parish priest, Fr Paul Mullins, an outstanding pedagogue, and well-known in the Province also as a commentator himself on anything at all, not just social justice issues...

It is a cursory account, but I want to situate Frank within the long pageant of identities of the Society of Jesus in this country who have been contributors to social debate on issues of justice and equity, taking their place in the public square. I know that would be important to Frank. It has been a consistent theme in the apostolate of the Province. It is important to note the line Frank stands in, how involved the Jesuits have been in issues of social justice and the defence of the vulnerable from their earliest times in this country. The first Irish Jesuits arrived in Australia in 1865 and 1866, and one of those was Fr Isaac Moore who within two weeks was giving lectures on 'Catholic Socialism', all printed in The Argus. Another of those first Jesuits was William Kelly, an extraordinarily gifted man who immediately took up the cudgels on behalf of the Irish Catholics who were subject to all types of discrimination. He addressed audiences of literally thousands in Melbourne and the discriminators found themselves having to contend with a man who was a polymath in his intellectual ability. In the 1870s there was the education debate with Jesuits key participants. In the 1880s the Jesuits from South Australia came strongly into the picture, defending Aboriginal people. Their Superior on the Northern Territory Mission, Fr Anton Strele, wrote letter after letter attempting to diminish the tide of negativity that was flowing against Aboriginal people in those decades, when our First Australians were regarded as an evolutionary oddity, and the role of the whites was to 'soothe the dying pillow'. Donald MacKillop SJ wrote letters to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age which would still be regarded as stronger in sentiment than anything we have published since. During the First World War there were the campaigns of Fr William Lockington, a New Zealand Jesuit, defending people in menial occupations.

This is an excerpt from the Daily Chronicle of the Jesuit House in Richmond, showing what a different world Australia was in those days:

24 September 1917: Great crowds of people came from Socialist meeting that night on Yarra Bank. They marched up Swan Street, smashing many windows of shops, along Church Street, (smashed lamp opposite Saint Ignatius’ Church), proceeded to G. Stirling’s drapery establishment (smashed two windows there), were overtaken by about a dozen troopers and thirty foot police, and were ‘smashed’ themselves, the troopers riding their horses on the footpath among the people under Stirling’s verandahs, and the foot police batoning every one they could reach. It was a savage exhibition of what the police can do when they are let loose. More than one baton was broken on the heads of the people. The cause of the meeting and procession was the high prices of food, many of the people starving while profiteers are reaping a golden harvest. During these weeks there is an almost general strike of the workers against the capitalists. Fr Lockington SJ at one of the Monday night Lectures on Social Questions stated that 1500 girls in Melbourne did not know where to get breakfast the following day, and that those who were working for the confectioners received only 14/- a week. A collection was taken up for them at the lecture, in the Cathedral Hall, Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and realised £84. Attention was called to Fr Lockington’s statement in Parliament and it was elicited that some of the confectioners’ assistants were getting less than 14/- a week, and that White Workers are getting less again. Dr Mannix always presides and speaks at these lectures, and draws immense crowds.

Fr Matthew Egan commenced a journal in 1917 whose title was 'Australia – Review of the Month'. It was the First World War. Irish Catholics were suspected of being disloyal to the Crown and empire, but Egan voiced his opposition against discrimination. His office was raided by the police from time to time. Two issues of the journal were confiscated entirely and much of each issue was censored. Lockington and Egan and William Hackett carried the torch through to the thirties and forties. In the late forties the Province sent two gifted men, John Fahy and Bill Smith, to study sociology, and out of that came the Institute for Social Order in Melbourne, and the monthly periodical, Social Survey. In the 1960s men like Fr Bede Doyle were active contributors for the debate to secure Government funding for Catholic schools. There has been Fr Mark Raper’s Asian Bureau Australia, and UNIYA in the 80s and 90s and Jesuit Refugee Service and work in East Timor. Jesuits have been actively involved in the asylum seeker controversies.

So the Jesuit Frank Brennan stands in a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of this Province, embracing both the indigenous and the Irish immigrant.

Priest critics of overbearing Government – back to the Magna Carta – have been numerous, a consistent aspect of the history of the Church in Australia, starting from the first Bishop, Bede Polding, himself and noting the extraordinary contribution of Bishop Wilson in defence of convicts and their human rights, and there have been many others after them.

But it is one thing to criticise the bureaucrats. It is another to criticise the Church hierarchy. Going back to Savanarola, such critics have often ended up in a sticky or fiery end! With his love for the Church on the one hand, and his undoubted loyalty to it, and his sense of the primacy of conscience and the need always for rights to be protected, Frank has engaged the hierarchical Church with respect, and has taken up the case of men like Bishops Bill Morris and Geoffrey Robinson who have suffered because of their opposition to certain areas. We all know of priests around the era of Humanae Vitae who are no longer priests because of the consequences of their outspokenness, and how men like the former MSC priest Paul Collins became distanced from their religious community.

All this shows that in the Church sometimes it is easier not to say rather than to say. In the days of Mabo, I know that Frank endured great obloquy. I was visiting the family of a boarder up in the top of Cape York at that time, and heard the grazier’s wife speak with such vehemence against Frank because of his advocacy of indigenous land rights. I hope that people will support Fr Frank Brennan in his courage and integrity, and that he will not allow the hurt to distract him from the main enterprise. I know there has been hurt. The correspondence between Frank and Cardinal Pell is on public record. Speaking of Fr Drinan, the American Jesuit who was asked by Holy See to step down from Congress, Frank says simply 'he was hurt and scarred in the public square; almost anyone who ventures in there is.' (page 126) Frank has had to endure that. In a book of 361 pages of text, I think that is the only allusion he makes. There have been snide swipes and veiled intimations against his integrity, even as late as here in Adelaide two weeks ago when the interviewing ABC journalist queried the fact that Frank gave the homily at the funeral of former Federal Minister in th who was at the time of his death under accusation of sexual abuse, as if it was hypocritical of Frank to pray for the dead. We pray for Frank’s sense of balance of soul in what he continues to do in these areas of controversy and not allow hurt or implied insult to distract him from the main enterprise.

This book looks at issues involving conscience and integrity in both the Church and the wider world. It is a compilation of public speeches, of involvement in the public square, addresses to professional groups, articles from Eureka Street, parish talks and invited commentary, given in places like Boston, Dublin, Georgetown, Oxford and Eastern seaboard Australian cities, with Port Pirie not yet in the catalogue!

Frank’s work starts with a buoyant speech about the new Pope Francis, chosen deliberately as the opening article, I am sure, to set a tone of hope and new beginning. Frank is one of those who believes that Pope Francis has put new heart into the lives of the Saints, as Saint Paul describes it. This work is replete with cameos, key quotations from significant instances, and historic gems, such as the pouring of earth by Gough Whitlam into the hand of Elder Vincent Lingiari, signifying the recognition of land rights, and Lingiari’s response, 'we are all mates now'. (page 219) He tells of relatively overlooked activities like how the two items placed in the Memory of the World Register in the National Library in Canberra were the two items of the journal of Captain James Cook from his voyage in the Endeavour and the papers relating to Eddie Mabo’s case in the High Court.

There are turns of phrase to help us sit up and recalibrate as we read through his work. For example, when the Synod on the Family broke new ground in 2014, Frank wrote, 'the genie may be out of the bottle but it is still in the ecclesiastical kitchen'. (page 17) And what I thought was an un-Frank like expression that 'there are times when I feel really cheesed off with the institutional Church...' (page 50) What strikes you is Frank’s candour – 'that we are lowly sinners who dare to profess the highest ideals, and that sometimes we cannot do it on our own – we need the help of our critics and the state. Our greatest possibilities are born of the promise of forgiveness and redemption, the hope of a new life emerging from suffering and even death. Out of our past failings and our present shame can come future promise and hope.' (page 8) As someone in dispute with Cardinal Pell from time to time, Frank nevertheless defends him when an injustice has been perpetrated upon him, and even describes the comment of Justice McClellan, Head of the Royal Commission when cross examining Cardinal Pell as an 'egregious error'. (page 89) He admonishes the Queensland judiciary to treat Chief Justice Carmody with the same respect that they would have called any other judgement from the Supreme Court of Queensland. He describes the report of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Programme as 'a dog’s breakfast'. On the Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse, Frank is not afraid to voice an opinion held by many, that though we have seen a Cardinal, and lots of Bishops and Provincials appearing before the Royal Commission we are yet to see any State Premier, Minister, or Department Head appear to be questioned concerning the multiple abuse in State institutions, nor any major or admiral for the abuses against minors committed in the armed forces.

Frank’s basic vision about the role of the small still voice is expressed numbers of times in his work, of course. He draws strongly upon Pope Francis whose approach he describes as – 'respect for the conscience of every person, regardless of their religious beliefs; silence in the face of difference; affirmation of the dignity and blessedness of every person; offering, not coercing; suggesting, not dictating; leaving room for gracious acceptance. These are all good pointers for us Catholics helping to form the Church of the twenty-first century holding the treasure of tradition, authority and ritual in trust for all the people of God...' (page 11). He says elsewhere (page 293) 'I am one of those Catholics who delights and thanks God daily that I am a citizen in a free, democratic, pluralistic society where the laws are not determined by unelected Bishops but by elected Members of Parliament and Judges trained in the law’. Leave out the unelected bishops bit and it is a ringing statement!

There are so many motifs in Frank’s work, that you will discover for yourself. His obvious affection for what he calls the 'learned ministry' of the university, and his respect for 'the university manner' (page 126) by which would be meant freedom of expression. The two contributions that stimulated me most were 'respecting religious freedom and freedom of conscience', a talk given at the time when the Victorian Parliament was legislating to take away freedom of conscience in action from a nurse or doctor opposed to abortion. The second is 'recognising Aboriginal rights'. The great breadth of Frank’s scholarship appears so well in those two contributions, in the first one as Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation in 2009, he traces the development of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, showing the evolution of its thought as that declaration proceeded from draft to draft. When talking of Aboriginal land rights, he goes back to Cecil Rhodes, and the decision of the Privy Council in 1919 concerning Rhodes’s holdings in Southern Rhodesia. He was giving this talk in Oxford, and I can just see him in my mind’s eye making the following comment to the assembled Oxford gathering, including presumably some Rhodes Scholars; he said, 'this decision related to land transactions between Cecil Rhodes and the natives of Zimbabwe that may in part have contributed to some of you being able to study here at Oxford, while the indigenous people suffered dispossession and deprivation.' When looking at the issue of Aboriginal land right his scholarship took him back to the decision of Chief Justice Marshall in 1823 in the United States Supreme Court, where the judge said – 'on the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much as they could respectfully acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency.' That was 1823. Several decades later, in our backyard, Fr Donald MacKillop SJ, brother of Mary, was writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1893:

Australia, as such, does not recognise the rights of the black man to live. She marches onward, truly, but not perhaps the fair maiden we paint her. The black fellow sees blood on that noble forehead, callous cruelty in her heart; her heel is of iron, and his helpless countrymen beneath her feet. But we are strong and the blacks are weak; we have rifles, they but spears; we love British fair play, and having got hold of this continent we must have every square foot. Little Tasmania is our model, and, I fear, will be, until the great papers of Australia will chronicle, 'with regret' the death of the last black fellow.

On religious freedom and freedom of conscience, Frank takes up the comments by Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, who wrote that having religious faith can lead to all sorts of practical difficulties for a politician, the first being that you may be considered to be weird. Frank insists that politics and religion be kept in their proper place, but that the religious person does have rights that must not be overwhelmed by any secularist ideology. He was shocked by a Q&A audience member questioning whether we can live in a truly secular society when the religious maintain their ability to affect political discourse.... on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, same-sex unions, abortion.... Frank’s view is that 'religion and human rights have nothing to fear from each other, each being indispensable to truth and a dignity of all' (page 131). However, the normally urbane Fr Brennan did allow his dander to get up when Pope Francis was attacked by a messianic atheist for failing to protect the Jesuits in his charge during the time of the atrocities of the colonels in Argentina. He exclaimed that the luxuries of such philosophers is that they never have to get their own hands dirty, and that they think that religious people are hypocrites unless they go right through to martyrdom. He said, 'yes how much better it would have been if there had been just one secular, humanist, atheist philosopher who had stood up in Buenos Aires and shouted 'stop it'. The military junta would have collectively come to their senses, stopped it, and the Argentinians would have lived happily ever after' (page 8).

To my mind, the passage that expresses well the clarity and strength of Frank’s basic approach, is where he wrote:

Once we abandon any religious sense that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God and that God has commissioned even the powerful to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with their God, it may be very difficult to maintain a human rights commitment to the weakest and the most despised in society. It may come down to the vote, moral sentiment or tribal affiliations. And that will not be enough to extend human rights universally (page 189)

The phrase 'the public square' is peppered throughout Frank’s work. It is of course the theatre in which Frank toils. We thank God and thank Frank that he is here as a person trained so well in constitutional law, so committed to the rights of every person, that he does remain working in the public square. Frank can say things that no Bishop can say, and to audiences which would invite no bishop to speak. The public Church needs him. The need for his presence in the Australian public square is so obvious. As he says, 'in the public square, human rights discourse is usually conducted against the background of presumed atheism and without much serious consideration for the rights of religious freedom and conscience.' (page 114) Frank’s presence in the public square provides the pluralism of outlook necessary for a democracy seeking to attain the truth through learning and respect of the other.

Frank’s passion comes out when Mabo is discussed. He recalls when he met some senior partners from a large legal firm who were as he says 'agnostic about the decision’s effect, doubting that it had really changed anything.' Frank replied that prior to the Mabo decision what he did was called politics, and after Mabo it is now called law (p.213)`

The public square. Many of you would recall Cinema Paradiso, the 1988 film set in a village in Sicily. The projectionist inculcates a love of film in a young lad who goes on to be a film director himself of international standing. Music is from Ennio Morricone, who also composed the music for The Mission. As the film traces its passage over thirty or so years, the public square onto which the cinema faces, changes subtly and without explicit comment. In the beginning it is the place where human beings gather. There is laughter, families grouping together, old men playing chess, women discussing what they had purchased at the market, and so on. Subtly it changes. Billboards and garish signs appear as time goes on. Trees are removed. The last scene is of a public square packed with cars, completely cluttered up as a parking lot, no human beings relaxing and conversing together, but motor cars, the impersonal, occupying all.

May this work of Frank’s help the public square regain and maintain its humanity. I commend this work to you strongly.

Greg O’Kelly SJ is Bishop of Port Pirie. This is the text of his speech at the Norwood, Adelaide, launch launch of Frank Brennan’s Amplifying That Still, Small Voice, on 19 June 2015



submit a comment

Existing comments


Peter Goers | 02 July 2015  

Bishop o'Kelly SJ, wow! History, literature, politics, sociology, religion, humanism ,logic.what a wonderful piece of writing. Fr. Brennan is fortunate to have such a supporter. But then we all know and appreciate Frank's honesty , compassion and resilience. Blessings and thanks to you both along with all the other voices speaking out in this present wilderness.

Celia | 02 July 2015  

Wonderful, Bishop Greg O'Kelly! A magnificent summary of a great Australian priest. The one part of your speech which made me wonder was "Frank can say things that no bishop can say, and to audiences which would invite no bishop to speak." I find myself asking "WHY?" I think the answer is that Frank knows when to say what he says and when not to without shirking his responsibility to loyalty, truth, his God and his Church. This sets him aside from some (bishops) whom he generously defends in Christian charity despite the unrealised damage they cause to belief, faith, trust and forgiveness. Frank probably won't agree with me on that last sentence!!

john frawley | 02 July 2015