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Parallels between the military and the church



The Australian community and its government are struggling to come to terms with the extremely serious allegations against members of the SAS for their alleged criminal misconduct during the war in Afghanistan. At the same time, we Catholics are experiencing a bad case of déjà vu as there are many echoes of how we felt when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RC) began in 2013. Just as that RC raised deeper questions and put the criminal charges against church personnel in a broader context so must further enquiries into the military. To restrict the focus just to those servicemen accused of war crimes would be mistaken without investigating military culture and governance.

Close up of priest robe and military uniform

The military has a special place in Australian culture. War has been accorded a special place too, including in Australia’s coming of age as a nation. This makes the task of investigating serious deficiencies in the military especially difficult.

We must not forget the recent string of controversies, inquiries and royal commissions into other sectors of Australian society. Many of them, such as institutional responses to child sex abuse, sexual harassment, corporate failures, health and aged care, and destruction of Indigenous heritage also raise bigger issues.

The similarities include political and organisational accountability, secrecy and lack of transparency, ethical failures, dysfunctional cultures and education and training.

You don’t have to have ever served in uniform to understand the place of the military in Australian society, just as you don’t have to be a cleric to understand the place of clergy in the Catholic church. Military service and military personnel are revered by Australians. Anzac Day and the Australian War Memorial are special. The former is often described as Australia’s informal national day, the latter as the heart and soul of Australia. The links between past and present military service, bravery and personal sacrifice are made frequently by our civic and political leaders. Disentangling the two, whether by the media or by ordinary Australians, is sensitive without appearing disloyal.

The military is a world unto itself, many aspects of which impact on cultural change and governance. It is hierarchical, closed and disciplined, which makes internal criticism and challenges to established ways of doing things much harder. It is often a life-long career which begins at an early age, frequently straight out of school. Training occurs in relatively closed environments, such as military academies and colleges. Trainees are taught to think of themselves as special and different from civilians.


'At the very least we should be close observers of the SAS controversy. Some lessons stand out though the parallels are not exact.'


The parallel with the church is striking. It too is hierarchical, closed and disciplined. Obedience as a virtue is demanded in religious orders and congregations. Priestly and religious training takes place in seminaries and novitiates. Special uniforms and regalia set them apart. Like traditional priestly and religious life, military families often live in communities and barracks segregated from the rest of the society. The details of church and military life, including titles, lines of command and internal structures are not well known in the general community.

Apart from the specifics, the allegations against the SAS raise the same questions which have been raised frequently in other recent enquiries, including the RC. These include the relationship between criminal offences and their cover up (avoiding reputational damage), between individual and systemic failures (the bad apple excuse) and between the alleged perpetrators and their leaders (the heads should roll argument).

Where does this leave the church leadership and community? We are still dealing ourselves with the evolution of new structures responsible for professional standards and with long-term cultural change within the church.

At the very least we should be close observers of the SAS controversy. Some lessons stand out though the parallels are not exact.

We now know that we are not alone in having to root out criminal behaviour and cover ups by leaders. The problems of banks and other corporates should have taught us this already.

We can learn from watching the strategies adopted by a similar organisations trying to cope with organisational disfunction and reputational damage.

Above all, never forgetting the victims, we must seek to make our new standards at least as high as any other organisation. For all of us it will be a long way back to re-earn public trust.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, the Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a delegate to the Plenary Council.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic, church, ADF, military, Brereton report, war crimes, abuse



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Existing comments

Some acknowledgement of the efforts made by Catholic Church leadership, which includes laypeople in positions of responsibility in education enterprises, charitable organisations, health services, refugee care, etc - especially the vast majority not guilty of criminal behaviour and cover-ups and who have co-operated with the Royal Commission in its investigation and implementation of appropriate child-protection strategies - would, I think, make for a more informative and balanced picture than the one presented here of the Catholic Church. John Warhurst displays a remarkable faith in the adequacy of secular strategies and processes - despite the grave injustices of the initial proceedings against and convictions of Cardinal George Pell and Archbishop Philip Wilson. Moreover, the analogy on which his argument is structured, while displaying some relevant parallels, includes no recognition of the difference between the military - a construction of State - and the Catholic Church, which, despite the failings and anomalies inherent in an historical body that includes sinners and saints, is the construction of Christ - at once a sacrament of Christ's abiding presence in the world and a work in progress until the end of time.

John RD | 01 December 2020  

Spot on John, the similarities between the two recent Reports of the Army and the Vatican, are not lost on any Open minded observer- inside or outside the Church. Systemic Abuse, Cover ups, Collusion’s and Criminality - irrespective of individual Child sexual abuse. Sadly Right up to past and present Leadership. Leaving what is left of the long suffering people in the public/pews in serious disarray and dismay, at their bare faced audacity. The Abuse of the ‘enemy or the Children’ is merely an effect, not the cause, of the greater Systemic Abuse of Power and Control-over the disempowered. Michael Wood OM.

Michael Wood | 01 December 2020  

Agreed John, the parallel and cover up between the military and the church is striking. The leaders of these units need to be investigated as well as the perpetrators. The latter have already been identified and given notice. The yawning difference between the church and military however is that the Bishops have not singled out the wolves among the sheep and instead retreated into their cathedrals and brayed loudly about their righteousness. They have been forced to confront the issues and still they insist on the status quo. Or they have retreated to Rome and brayed loudly over there believing that their burnt offerings will somehow make a difference. Yaweh may be pleased with the aroma of incense but he or she would be overjoyed if heads rolled instead. Yet Bling Van Elst is now in charge of Vatican Evangelization, after blowing $43m on renovations. McCarrick has gone incommunicado after being laicised. Michael Bransfield still sits on the bench at the vatican Supreme Court.. The Post in 2019 obtained an internal church investigation that found Bransfield, as bishop in one of the country’s poorest states, spent millions of dollars of diocesan money on chartered jets, lavish furnishings at his official residence and nearly 600 cash gifts to fellow clergymen. The Post also found that $21 million was moved from a church-owned hospital in Wheeling, W.Va., to be used at Bransfield’s discretion. The money was moved into the Bishop’s Fund, a charity Bransfield created with the stated purpose of helping residents of West Virginia, tax filings showed. Post Aug 11 2020. Dear me our own AB Hart was gifted two expensive homes in Kew and Dromana on retirement. Yes its business as usual.

Francis Armstrong | 01 December 2020  

The church is unlike the military, the banks, other corporates, the government. There should be no parallels in wrong-doing. It's true the church has been obfuscating, ducking and weaving, denying, looking the other way, etc, etc over the damage inflicted on victims/survivors of sexual abuse. Many in the church seem to think that overhauling of systems wipes out what happened. It may help to wipe out what may happen in the future. However there are people living in the church and disenfranchised from the church who are still hurting. I'm not sure how 'public trust' will be earned while the situation remains as it is.

Pam | 01 December 2020  

A very profound bench mark, setting us on a poignant journey, and - yes - more than a conversation.

brian davies | 01 December 2020  

Hmmm... I guess you could add that both institutions greatly rely and thrive on public paranoia... fuelled by occasional demonstrations of their "necessity". Neither the military nor church(es) have moved much with the times; both are steeped in outdated traditions but maintain a beyond reproach position, right down to their silly regalia to set them apart from the hoi polloi. Napoleon had the bright idea of sewing a series of buttons on soldiers tunic sleeves to stop them wiping their snotty noses on the uniform; today a dress/mess kit sleeve still has a row of (hopefully, unnecessary) shiny buttons but nobody would think to examine the utility - we've become accustomed to a "look", very snappy. Both institutions understand the value in putting on a show for the punters; ceremony, pomp and circumstance somehow elevates persons who are only mortal to some alleged sanctity or authority. One can only ponder the prevalence of alcoholism, self abuse and suicide among their members but I can understand the reluctance to be examined by a Commissioner that might challenge what is wrong with the institution or those it enlists. Perhaps those who succumb seek solace when they've finally discovered the flaw...

ray | 01 December 2020  

Whistle blowers in both organisations brought the criminal behaviour within each to light. The church treated its whistle blowers as criminals and drove many of the those bearing witness against it to suicide; and had to be dragged kicking and screaming before a Royal Commission. The military protected its whistle blowers from the inevitable knee-jerk retaliation of some of their peers until their allegations could be investigated and a report released leading to the perpetrators being further investigated for the purpose on putting them on trial. I know which organisation has the greater moral authority. It's not the one that sprinkles sanctimony on burning coals to make smoke.

Paul Smith | 02 December 2020  

John RD your polemic misses the mark for me. Bishop Bill Morris, I suspect, would have preferred the processes Pell and Wilson endured rather than those he encountered. The Catholic Church is a human institution reaching for the divine rather the Christ seeking to engage with humanity to my mind. That has already happened and is happening without and the intermediary, the Church. Like doctors and lawyers, clergy and soldiers are professionals. That is, they swear oaths to put the interests of others before their own. In deciding to protect reputation and self-interest ahead of other considerations, they are corrupt. Many of our bishops have been been both corrupt and, by condoning evil, have indulged in it. The more power that is accumulated in one office, especially one not subjected to regular and independent scrutiny, the more likely corruption will occur. Lancing the boil is what is called for both in terms of the military and the Church. Let's be a bit more honest and transparent and abandon shibboleths, John RD.

Kimball Byron Chen | 02 December 2020  

Both the Army and the Catholic Church have hierarchical organisations which developed over time. In certain matters both are answerable to outside authorities. Both are answerable to the Law. I would have preferred the Catholic Church here to have had a less authoritarian stance. This is something which developed in the Ireland of the Ascendancy, when the priest was often the only educated person in the community. Things have changed both in Ireland and here and this is no longer the case. The paedophilia scandals have lowered the prestige of Church authorities, which they may never recover. I think, in many parishes, the priests need to come down to earth, as do many in the hierarchy. The Church needs to realise there is a difference between authority and authoritarianism, otherwise nothing will change. It is, to me, a matter of putting life into the bones. God willing.

Edward Fido | 03 December 2020  

I see every human being, including myself, as a creature. If those abusing power looked in the mirror for 4 minutes straight. I am certain they too would see a creature staring back at them. And possibly, (hopefully) get a real fright!

AO | 03 December 2020  

John with the latest furor posted by Zhao Lijian authored by Fu Yu Qilin - the image of an Australian soldier cutting the throat of an Afghan child who is holding a lamb, the juvenile taunt is designed to infuriate and humiliate our politicians. Its interesting to note that both Qilin (wolf warrior) and Zhao (wolf diplomat) have picked up the Nazi terminology of Hitler - wolf lair and Hitler's name is itself a derivation of the animal, meaning “father wolf” – a mammalian title he wore proudly, citing himself as a wolf on many public occasions throughout the war. So we see a new breed of contemptuous fascism entering the cold war of Australian Chinese relations.

Francis Armstrong | 03 December 2020  

Kimball Byron Chen: The Church did not call itself into existence. Let's be more transparent and honest about that, and about the implications of it for the appropriateness of analogies and for ecclesial renewal and reform.

John RD | 03 December 2020  

Nice piece, John. It called to mind something in Honest History on the speeches of the former Director of the War Memorial: http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/stephens-david-awkward-humility-the-speeches-of-the-hon-dr-brendan-nelson-ao-part-ii-long-bows-holly-golightly-and-political-baseball-bats/ Dr Nelson’s delivery certainly suggests he sees his speeches as words for the ages. When he is in Anzac mode, he does not speak; he preaches. He uses and re-uses vignettes of individual soldiers in a manner akin to a revival preacher intoning parables. Even when rattling off details of campaigns and battles, as in Speeches 8 and 10, he looks for the affecting individual story, if sometimes he misquotes the source. The accuracy of the evidence is not really the point; emotion and impact is. Dr Nelson has taken to heart Ken Inglis’s throwaway line about Anzac being a secular or civic religion. (Communism, Nazism, fascism and Kemalism have been described in the same way.) He has undertaken to assuage what Father Paul Collins, in an Anzac context, once called Australians’ longing for liturgy. He once thought about becoming a Jesuit priest …; he has become a bishop of the cult of Anzac.

David Stephens | 03 December 2020  

David Stephens: The trappings of Church do not a real Church make - the Jesuit-educated Brendan Nelson knows this. Would that those who regard the Church simply as a secular body would.

John RD | 04 December 2020  

There is another similarity between the current distressing situation in Defence and the situation of the Church with clergy child sexual abuse. In both, it is too easy to quickly shift the focus from the real victims, to other 'innocent' people in the institution. So with the Church situation, fury was quickly directed at the media for its part in supposedly casting judgement on the clergy as a whole, when the fury should have been directed at the clergy who abused children in the first place. And with Defence, fury is being directed at the 'big wigs' wanting to strip soldiers of medals, when this fury should be directed at the soldiers who did the wrong thing in the first place. It is too easy to stop looking at the real victims and to start focussing on less important issues!

Beth Gibson | 04 December 2020  

Given that the Word of God, inspired by an omniscient God, describes itself in terms of shield and sword, there is a divinely foreseen, and therefore a moral, parallel between the Church and the military. And so we have William Booth making use of that parallel. However, there is an insufficiency of parallel in that the military imposes extrinsic discipline on its personnel to inculcate intrinsic discipline while the Church, at least these days, leaves it to the individual believer to overcome natural languor to found the necessary intrinsic discipline. Nevertheless, the parallel is such that if the military cannot be ‘congregational’ and effective against the enemy, neither, despite the views of some synodalists, can the Catholic Church, or, in respect of the Enemy, the Church.

roy chen yee | 05 December 2020  

Beth Gibson, bless me mother. For we all have sinned. Yet both institutions close ranks when their reputation is threatened. Of course self examination is not something the military shrinks from, whereas the church on the other hand, will duck and weave, invoke canon law, hide behind the pontifical secret until hell freezes over. John RD you seem to have a lot of faith in the institution and the sacraments but are too forgiving on the scale of the abuse and the clericalism. Or is that a panacea? For instance why should we accept unilateral pontifical appointments of Bishops decided by Rome. This is our church, not theirs. As for abuse, Hell's Bells, if I were Pope, I'd at very least start a worldwide Inquisition.

Francis Armstrong | 05 December 2020  

Francis Armstrong: The short answer to your question on episcopal appointments is that I believe the collegiality of the Pope and bishops and the unity of local churches with the See of Peter receives apt and ecclesiologically justified expression in the traditional procedure (which does include local consultation). Regarding the clerical abuse issue, which I have previously in ES postings described as "betrayal", "abomination" and "outrage", I do not think structural response alone as advocated by many reformers anywhere near adequate as a remedy.

John RD | 06 December 2020  

It is not "our Church" Francis Armstrong. It is Christ's Church to which we are invited to belong. It is a shame that seriously flawed or indeed corrupt human beings administer this Church on Earth along corporate lines, alienating themselves and others from God's intent. Perhaps the only salvation for this Church will be the second coming!

john frawley | 06 December 2020  

ES viewers are well aware of those Catholics with an unapologetic dedication to dogmatism, a secretive and sometimes violent distortion of belief that insists on always brandishing weapons and never dropping one's guard in the presence of those who question Church authority. This doctrinaire abuse is just as insidious as as the sexual abuse perpetrated on so many children as investigated by the Royal Commission. In that sense the weapons currently employed by the Bishops, relating mainly to silence and secrecy, are no less part of the absolutist 'esprit-de-corps' of our military top-brass. When dogmatic beliefs are not shared by everyone who wears similar armor it helps to ask why rather than shut the gates and man the ramparts. Quite the opposite, in fact, because one of the aberrations emerging from John Warhurst's discussion may well be to expose the phenomenon, blind to many Catholics of my generation, that we have been unknowingly reared in a culture of religious zealotry which insists that ours is the only true Way. And just like in the real world, religion in the unfolding revelation seems to show that it is neither universally good nor irredeemably bad, except that its effect can be powerful!

Michael Leonard FURTADO | 06 December 2020  

Michael Leonard Furtado: pursuit of and commitment to truth is not "dogmatism". Your demonising tactics are past tedious. What is "secretive" and "violently distortive" about the arguments advanced by those whose views differ from yours?

John RD | 07 December 2020  

Michael Leonard Furtado: “ours is the only true Way.” Didn’t Somebody say just that? As a matter of practicality, a religion which doesn’t claim to be exclusive is one that doesn’t exist.

roy chen yee | 08 December 2020  

Michael Furtado: what he said. I've been longing to say that for years, but I thought it wouldn't get past the monitor. Roy chen yee: I guess that's why Jesus had a major problem with the organised religion of his day. He didn't come to set up a Vatican State with its own Star Chamber, trial without representation and secret accounts and slush funds. Whenever you have institutions, particularly without effective oversight, you need regular reform. When do we need it? We need it NOW.

Patrick John Mahony | 09 December 2020  

Patrick John Mahony: Confidentiality procedures are a prudential matter and serve to protect an organisation from its enemies, as is shown by the debate over how open, trusting and porous societies like those of the West can withstand subversion from the migration of people and ideas from expansive but secretive and violently distortive intellectual milieus as found in China and within the Muslim civilisations. During the Second World War, the Vatican saved Jews in secret and preserved itself by nuance. The rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church by some well-fed and nonsuffering of the prosperous and peaceful West is founded on self-indulgence concerning liberty of personal behaviour. What ‘problems’ these self-indulgents see are molehills amplified into mountains. As for the Jewish organised religion, there was no secrecy to it: Sadducees and Pharisees openly submitted themselves to the authority of John the Baptist and all contests with Jesus were in public. The issues were over public interpretations of the Law, the blasphemy of claiming the ability to forgive sins, and fears over a possible armed conflict with the Romans.

roy chen yee | 10 December 2020  

Mr Roy chen yee, you took up Michael Furtado's criticism of people saying (Paraphrase): "ours is the only true way." This is code for "I am right, you are wrong", the stance of someone not used to open dialogue. What Jesus did was to engage in dialogue. But he said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life". The way, the truth and the life is the Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, Who always was and always will be. Every creature has equal relationship to that Way. He also said "I have come to bring you life to the full" and "the truth will set you free". We "well-fed self-indulgents" want to see openness and freedom for all who would follow the Christ. If we choose or are chosen by the Catholic church, that church should also be open and offer freedom. BTW: if the Vatican was defending Jews in WWII, why is the record of its conduct still held secret in its archives? I want to know that we did the right thing; why can I not be assured on this?

Patrick Mahony | 12 December 2020  

I think the real problem with the Australian episcopate is that, by and large, they are cut from the same authoritarian mould which passed its 'use by' date long ago and is culturally inappropriate. They are not simpatico with their flocks. Perhaps they should look to Pope Francis. He is quite orthodox but emphatically does not come across as a prig. Something should be done to humanise them.

Edward Fido | 14 December 2020  

Patrick Mahony: “"ours is the only true way." This is code for "I am right, you are wrong", the stance of someone not used to open dialogue. What Jesus did was to engage in dialogue. But he said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life".” So, you can dialogue on the basis of “I am right, you are wrong” as Jesus did. “Every creature has equal relationship to that Way. How? Some of the vineyard labourers did better. “want to see openness and freedom for all who would follow the Christ.” To do what, change discipline or impugn doctrine? “why is the record of its conduct still held secret in its archives? I want to know that we did the right thing; why can I not be assured on this?” Non-canonical issue so you may be correct. Of course, it would be handy to know how the Vatican surreptitiously helped people in the past to flee persecution from their national government, if you’re a secret policeman and you think the Vatican (or some evangelical mob) is still doing this kind of thing in your country. Smuggling people out, smuggling Bibles in, much of a muchness, wouldn’t you say?

roy chen yee | 15 December 2020  

Mahony hits the proverbial nail on the head with his remarks about the tragically secretive and ambiguous position of our Constantinian Church in regard to the Jews! Indeed, were it not for such corruption one has to doubt if John XXIII would have called the Council. Heaps to clean up, with John-Paul and Benedict desperately responding to post-conciliar 'exigencies' (i.e. reactions) by stretching the carpet of 'cover-up' to hide sensational revelations of episcopal double-speak and collaboration. Among many others examples of this cover-up is the case of Cardinal Innitzer, Archbishop of Vienna, whose wiki entry says it all: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Innitzer I once heard Professor Father Edmund Campion, at an official function in The University of Sydney, state that Innitzer declined to give his approval to Anschluss until Dolfuss threatened: 'In that case we'll have to open up the Archives'. Innitzer being the loyal son of the Church, up to his neck over many years in direct political involvement with appeasers, and who actually collated and secured the Church's Austro-Hungarian secrets under lock and key in Vienna, duly complied with his blessing! Roy's deft explanation, similarly pleading exigency and justification, is widely regarded as a white-wash. A shameful history, second to none!

Michael Leonard FURTADO | 18 December 2020  

Michael Leonard Furtado: “ I once heard...Innitzer declined to give his approval to Anschluss until Dolfuss threatened: 'In that case we'll have to open up the Archives'.” Dolfuss was an Austrian nationalist and opposed integration with Germany. In any case, he was killed by pro-integrationists four years before the Anschluss, which was only legitimised on paper after Germany invaded and took over Austria. Innitzer was rebuked by the Vatican (Pius XI and the future Pius XII) for signing a paper that supported a fait accompli, thus showing that a ‘Constantinian’ Church is not Constantinian when a feudal underlord does his own thing, no matter how sincere he is (shades of Bishop Morris, undoubtedly a good and sincere man). Anyway, very early on, Innitzer started to oppose the Nazis and received flak for it, doing in his own way Jesus’ command to recover and then strengthen your brothers. As to your main attempted slur, that the Church is ‘Constantinian’, good for it. Constantine, heretic that he was almost to and perhaps even at death, made the Catholic Church an institution among world governments, unlike Orthodoxy and Islam which are constricted by secular territorial overlords. A ‘neutral’ public square is a fallacy.

roy chen yee | 21 December 2020  

Roy should stick to matters of historical precision and avoid theological adventurism, for he is undoubtedly right about Dollfuss. The name I was searching for was Seyss-Inquart. Apologies & Thanks.

Michael Leonard FURTADO | 21 December 2020  


EDITORS | 22 December 2020  

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