Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Sex and power in the church

I am grateful for Geraldine Doogue's fulsome introduction, but I should point out the she is a living national treasure too. It is great to be with you. Having just heard the moving testimony of one of you who was a victim of abuse in the Church, I think it would be best at the outset reflectively to take the meditation at the end of Geoff's chapter entitled 'A dark grace, a severe mercy':

In sexual abuse, there is always spiritual harm, for the abuse always harms the person's sense of wholeness and connectedness and hence the person's sense of meaning and identity.

Spiritual healing means helping a person to be whole again and to find a new world of meaning, a new set of satisfying answers to the basic questions of life, and this means a new set of persons, objects, activities and ideas that can be loved.

In all its horror, sexual abuse can actually become the catalyst that produces a better church, the only force in the church powerful enough to bring about necessary change.

If we are willing, it can be for each of us a dark grace, a severe mercy. That's what was expressed in what was read out by Geraldine.

Well, to come to my observations this afternoon. As you would appreciate, it is always an honour to be able to speak at the afternoon session at a Saturday conference. In fact, I'm coming to the conclusion that's the job of Jesuits in the Catholic Church. So coming to the task, I took up last night the second volume that's just been published of Hans Kung's autobiography entitled Disputed Truth. He reveals in that book the letter which Pope Benedict wrote to him when Kung had asked for a meeting once Benedict had become Pope. This is what Benedict wrote to Kung. If ever there were two arch intellectual rivals in the theological realm of the Catholic Church of the 20th century, they were Benedict and Kung. This is what Benedict wrote to Kung on the 15th June 2005:

I am especially grateful to you for emphasising what we have continued to have in common and the mutual human respect despite all the controversies, which must always remain a matter of course for Christians. Of course I am prepared to have a conversation with you.

To me, the two stark observations there by Benedict are the two phrases surrounded by those simple words 'of course'. That there must always be controversies amongst us as Christians. Of course. It's not all going to be resolved to anyone's intellectual satisfaction. And we have to be able to live with the gifts of the Spirit, despite our intellectual differences, whatever the theological argument at the moment. And second, in terms of process — the first being about content — 'of course I am prepared to have a conversation with you'.

And let's face it. The reason so many of us have turned up here today in the Salvation Army Hall is that that has not been taken to be self evident in our Church. But of course we will be prepared to have a conversation together. But we come in hope that this is the beginning or the next step in such a conversation. We come with a commitment to dialogue.

Let me be personal and anecdotal for a couple of minutes. A great moment of liberation, as I later realised for me in my life in the Australian church, came on 7 July 2008 at about 7.40am on ABC Radio National. His Eminence Cardinal Pell was being asked about the views that had been expressed by Father Brennan about the proposed World Youth Day law. He replied: 'I'm tempted to say it's a typically unhelpful remark. On occasion he shows a conspicuous sense of due proportion [but this is a] bit of a lack of common sense. It's a beat-up.'

Now for a moment or two, as you can understand, I was rather upset. But then I thought this is an opportunity for dialogue and so I wrote at length to his eminence simply explaining what I had been up to in the last couple of weeks. You see, what had happened was that the NSW Government had passed a law which any lawyer would say was unacceptable. A law which said it was an offence to annoy a pilgrim in all sorts of public places including Hyde Park, Sydney University and railway stations.

The Sydney Morning Herald sought my opinion. Now as some can attest, Geraldine being one, and many would say, that Frank Brennan is a bit of a media tart but I thought this is not the occasion for giving an off-the-cuff interview to the Sydney Morning Herald given its approach on World Youth Day. So, I made a study of the proposed law and I formed the view that it was not only a very bad law. I also formed the view it was a very unworkable law, and one that was inconsistent with the spirit of Catholic social teaching on human rights.

I thought this was a moment for public catechesis so I issued a brief statement which I gave to the newspapers quoting at some length Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris about Catholic social teaching on human rights and how this proposed law was inconsistent. I then promptly contacted the World Youth Day office and the Cardinal's office to provide them with copies of same and to explain what I was up to.

It took about 24 hours to talk to anything but a machine at the World Youth Day office but ultimately I spoke to a gentleman who did have some authority and I said to him: 'For what it's worth my political advice is that the church should make two things very clear: first, we did not ask for this law; and second, our church leaders have no opinion on whether it's a good or a bad law.' I was told that my advice was wise but there were difficulties with following it because of other things that were at play within the WYD and Church administration which were never revealed to me. And thus I thought it appropriate to spell all of this out in a letter to His Eminence. I wrote:

As a Jesuit I have no interest in offering typically unhelpful remarks or engaging in beat-ups on issues affecting the good standing of our Church. For what it's worth, many Catholics including Catholic lawyers, have been in contact with me grateful that I was speaking in a measured, considered way on an issue which the Church had needlessly complicated. I suppose this just shows that we are a broad Church with a number of publics.

Later in the day I was contacted by the ABC PM program asking whether I would reply. I thought it would be wisest not to reply but I contacted a retired cleric who I thought by nature was fairly conservative and I sought his view. He said: 'You must speak but on no account must you be personally critical of the cardinal. But you must spell out the principles that you articulated.' This I did.

I take this as an instance simply that the last thing we can afford to be is afraid and we must always be committed to dialogue. In the end we believe the truth will out. Now I too am human and I have to confess that I had a little self pride, unbecoming of a Jesuit I know, but a little self pride when a couple of weeks later the full Federal Court presided over by Justice Robert French, later to be made the Chief Justice of Australia, happened to agree with Father Brennan's opinion about the law. Though the three judges, of course, quite properly made no reference to Catholic social teaching on human rights.

The great strength of this book by Geoffrey Robinson is that it is the invitation to conversation and to put fear behind us. And even if that came through only in a muted form when it was first written, given the treatment that it has received by people who should have known better, it has become something of an icon, has it not, a call to conversation — without fear.

Late last year I was up in Brisbane giving a lecture at the Jesuit parish there on our recent General Congregation's teaching on faith and justice. Towards the end of the lecture, a woman got to her feet and said, 'Father, I am very surprised that you can come to Brisbane and give a lecture on social justice and say nothing about the situation at St Mary's Church, South Brisbane.' I replied, 'With all respect, you know nothing of my way of proceeding.' I said, 'It's a few years since I've been to St Mary's South Brisbane and no one has spoken to me about the situation there, so who am I to come from elsewhere and pontificate about the situation at South Brisbane?' I said, 'But as you've raised the situation at South Brisbane, let me offer just this simple observation.' I said, 'I know that Father Peter Kennedy is one of the most pastoral priests you will ever find. But what you might not know is that John Bathersby, the Archbishop, is one of the most down-to-earth, decent, ordinary blokes you could ever find.'

And so, I went on and I told this story. Twenty years ago I used regularly to pass through Cairns on my way to Aboriginal communities in far northern Australia. So one morning I come down to breakfast at the Bishop's house and greeted the new bishop John Bathersby or Bats as he is affectionately known. So I asked Bats: 'What's on today?', thinking that the role of a Jesuit when staying in a Bishop's house is to try to cheer him up. He replied, 'I've got to go to a meeting of the ministers fraternal.' I said, 'That's a good thing, isn't it? Ecumenism and all.' He scratched his bald pate and said, 'Yeah but they want me to sign a letter opposing the building of the casino.' And I said, 'Well that's a good thing isn't it?' He looked at me and said 'Yeah but it's a bit difficult when your old man was an SP bookie.'

When we are wrestling with these issues, creating conversation and getting beyond fear, there is no substitute for knowing each other. I think is what's been missing in a lot of this dialogue. It was entertaining for me this morning to hear Barry Brundell, if I may say, because I haven't heard Barry give a talk for a very long time and I was a little surprised. His ecclesiology is probably a little more conservative than mine, but that's alright. We are a broad Church. What was amusing for me though was this. I first knew Barry, as I was reminding him this morning, back in 1968-69. I was a very impressionable boy in a boarding school in country Toowoomba. Now in that school we had a number of characters — all Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. The most authoritarian of them in the dining room was a gentleman by the name of Paul Collins, well known to those involved with the Catalyst for Renewal. 400 boys used to come into the dining room at one time, and thus it was required that we remain on silence until the priest uttered the words 'Deo Gratias'.

Paul Collins often, when confronted with a situation of even one table of boys muttering a word before 'Deo Gratias', would keep us all on silence for the whole meal. Now, of course, he's changed his dispensation and his outlook on these things very substantially. Meanwhile Barry turned up mid-term, smoking a pipe. He'd been banished to Toowoomba because he dared to sign a letter about Humanae Vitae. And so, we are able to put a human face on individuals who have walked the journey. These individuals are real flesh and blood who have reflected on their experience of life and Church, and we respect their reflections, including their theological reflections as they come to see the way forward for us to be Church.

When we come to Geoffrey Robinson we know we are confronted with one of the Australian Bishops who is highly intelligent. Now, this is no disrespect to other bishops, but there would be other bishops who would have different and perhaps greater gifts. But it is undoubtedly true that one of the more theologically literate and intelligent bishops in the Australian Bishops Conference in recent years was Geoffrey Robinson. I make that point because I suspect that the publication of this book by an intelligent and theologically literate Bishop creates additional problems for the Bishops' conference — particularly when there would be seen to be theological deficiencies which might be elucidated or corrected by theological experts.

You see, none of us, even those of us who are Bishops in the Australian church, are infallible. And coming to terms with this fallibility, I think, is part of the challenge of what the publication of this book has been about. I am able to speak publicly as I do because I have never claimed to be a theologian, and I never will. A lot of my work is in the field of social justice. Two of the great principles of the Catholic social teaching on social justice, developed by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, are solidarity and interdependence. Interdependence: where we acknowledge our relationship to each other; and solidarity: where we place ourselves in the shoes of the other and we ask how it might be for them. We, the Catholic faithful, are challenged to stand in solidarity with our Bishops as they ponder what to do with the publication of this book by Geoffrey Robinson.

This is a very challenging book for the rest of our Bishops, and not just because he questions the wisdom of the papal teaching on contraception. Robinson is probably the first Bishop on record in Australia to put in writing the questions (though God knows how many Bishops we've heard ask them in conversation): Whatever of the doctrine of infallibity, was it really wise or prudent of Pius XII to define infallibly the Assumption of Mary? Where does it get us in terms of our faith life? Where does it get us in terms of our life as the church community? Now I dare to say that whatever criticisms might be made of Bishop Robinson, we haven't heard a bevy of other Bishops coming out and saying how prudent and wise it was for Pius XII to issue an infallible declaration about Mary in 1950. And we don't often hear it repeated that this doctrine is absolutely essential to our faith, do we? It's not to make an issue of it; it's just to say that it's part of the reality of living in the contemporary church.

Here is a Bishop who has said that it's folly to say that you're not allowed to discuss the ordination of women. I'm always wary of Geraldine now because, some time ago, she did one of those profiles of me on Compass. I turned up to see a Bishop one day and there he was with the whole transcript of the wretched thing, having underlined various parts, and one of the things I was challenged on was I dared to look at that smiling female face and say, well of course it's silly to say you're not allowed to talk about the ordination of women. These things are part of our reality and they have been named by Geoffrey Robinson and we can be grateful for that. It's no disrespect to the other Bishops. It's no disrespect to any Pope. It's simply to say that this is part of our reality.

One of the key insights of this book is to make it clear to us that the church is not perfect. Some of us might not feel that as acutely as Bishop Robinson obviously did at the end of his time as a Bishop. As I said in the article in Eureka Street yesterday, I don't regard this book as one of the great theological texts. It doesn't purport to be. I think it is a pastoral reflection by a Bishop who has worked earnestly over the years, particularly addressing faithfully one of the most critical issues confronting the church: how to deal with sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Communion.

Bishop Geoffrey has made it clear, not only that the church is not perfect, but also that it never will be — and definitely not in our life time. As he says, this book is not directly about abuse but about the better church these revelations absolutely demand. We are all seeking that better church. If any of us want to delude ourselves that we are about to find the ideal church, then of course we are going to be frustrated; of course we are going to be angry; and we will probably start by saying that people who gather in Salvation Army halls are somehow outside the church.

No, we're all very much within what is an imperfect institution and we are working to make it the place where we would hope to find the privileged action of the Spirit. One of the refreshing things for me in Geoffrey's description of the church is treated a little obliquely when he speaks about the Anglican communion. He points out that in the Anglican communion you find really three different entities: the evangelical, the catholic and the liberal. Well, I dare to say that we find exactly those influences in the Roman Catholic Church. And there is nothing wrong with that. As he says, relative to each other, the evangelical branch gives more weight to the bible, the catholic branch gives more weight to what has been handed down, and the liberal branch gives more weight to the wisdom of the world around us and within us.

The evangelical likes to quote from authors like Father Tony Campbell, my Jesuit colleague, an Old Testament scholar. Tony Campbell is absolutely imbued in the Old Testament. In fact, I think he hardly knows the New Testament exists. But, he is one who gives profound weight to what he finds there in the Bible. There are others who give more weight to what has been handed down. I dare to say, Barry Brundell is one of those. There are Catholics of very good faith who, perhaps more than I, would say we have to look to the tradition. And then there are the liberal branch which gives more weight to the wisdom of the world around us and within us. For us to be the better church that Robinson is speaking about, we have to take radically seriously the teachings of scripture. We have to take radically seriously the teaching of the tradition. We have to take radically seriously the experience of ourselves and those around us, including those who are victims of abuse, and their critical reflection on those experiences.

The next issue about the book I'd like to touch on is the role of the Pope and there, I may say Geoff, I do find a tension. So might I say a little about that. You might say, of course Jesuits see tension in the role of the Pope because they're the only ones who take a special vow of obedience to the sovereign pontiff — and we're usually the ones who are in trouble with him! But if I take you first to a couple of quotes in the Introduction. Geoff says that 'within the Catholic Church there is a constant insistence that on all important matters Catholic people must look to the pope for guidance and direction'. 

With respect, I would say it's unclear in Geoff's thinking whether he thinks that is the case or whether it ought to be the case. Or whether it's both. And as he further says, 'Within the present structures of the Catholic church, it is the pope alone who has the power to make the changes that are necessary.' I think my approach rather would be to say it may be that ultimately the pope has to sign off on changes or he has to effect some institutional changes but I don't think it's he alone who has the power to do it. And unless we, the people of God, actually take a stand and start to exercise our own power on these issues where we see a need for change, I don't think it's going to come just by the individual action of the pope.

So if I might come to a couple of observations Geoff makes about the pope and sexual abuse. He says 'if the pope had responded immediately and forcefully, speaking directly to victims and demanding a humble, honest and compassionate response from all members of the church, the power of the rock is so great that the response of the Catholic Church could have been a model.' But could the pope have acted so quickly, unilaterally and effectively? Let's consider what Geoff says at the end of that chapter. He says: 'It has not been good that the response of the whole church has depended to a large extent on the understanding and limitations of one person, the Pope, however admirable that person may have been in many other fields.'

Geoff rightly asserts that 'it would have been far healthier if the strong views of the entire People of God had been part of the response. If the church is to move forwards, this painful lesson must be learnt.' It does seem to me, and this is no excuse or justification of what's gone on in the church, but basically it couldn't be done by the Pope alone and it did require us, the people of God, to be involved reflecting on those experiences and working together.

We need better ways of working together. I think there is a risk in Geoff putting too much on the Pope individually. If there had been unilateral action by the Pope earlier there would have been some other problems which would have been created institutionally.

Let me also consider what Geoff says about papal apologies. He professes his 'profound disappointment that no Pope has so far said ‘sorry' directly to all victims and no Pope has so far made a public promise urgently to study the causes of abuse and ruthlessly to change anything or everything that might contribute to abuse.' Since Geoff wrote this, we have been privileged here in Sydney to have the Pope not only deliver a public apology, but also then meet symbolically with some victims of abuse.

Some of my Jesuit colleagues were internally a little critical of me when I made the observation publicly that I thought the Pope's apology would have been better heard if a couple of the local bishops here, who were still waiting to make apologies for particular utterances or actions that had led up to World Youth Day, had made those apologies prior to the Pope's own apology. There then would have been a much healthier environment, both within and without the church, for the reception of the papal apology. Unfortunately the local bishops made their apologies after and not before the Pope.

The second last substantive issue on the book which I would like to make reference to is conscience. Happily Geoff adopts a view of conscience similar to that expressed by those who would agitate the need for the person to have a formed and informed conscience and to that conscience to be true. One of the refreshing things to hear from a bishop in the treatment of conscience is the acknowledgment that at the Second Vatican Council there was an 'ambiguity on the subject of conscience' and that the Council 'was unable to resolve the tension'.

We have to live with that tension and it is no good having individual bishops trying to tell us that when push comes to shove you simply do what we say. That is no resolution of the tension. The only way you can conscientiously live with the tension which is there in Vatican II is to say: I will form and inform my conscience and to that conscience be true. Geoff rightly says this is not some slick formula for saying you simply do what you like. We know that each of us is shaped and formed by our individual actions.

Some of you will have seen the sad Four Corners program the other night on Marcus Einfeld. You see there an individual shaped by a lifetime of decisions, large and small. He didn't come to commit the mammoth lie simply there and then. His character had been shaped over time — shaped by an endless series of actions and dispositions — big and small. It's not for us to engage in moral judgement about him now, and I do wish the media would leave him alone whether or not he was wearing a seat belt on the way to court for sentencing! When do these people ever let up! And let's not forget his many achievements nationally and internationally. Marcus painted with broad strokes on the international canvas of human rights, but it now appears that he cut many small corners in his rush to convince himself and others of his own righteousness.

The idea that somehow our character is not shaped by conscientious decision is a delusion. One of the strengths of the Catholic tradition has been to say that it is a painstaking task to form and inform that conscience and to that conscience to be true — in the big decisions and in the little actions of life. One of the delightful things that Geoff gives us in that chapter on conscience is the acknowledgment that what is really needed is a different view of God. It's when we move from seeing God as the emperor to God as the loving God — the God who loves us unconditionally but also wants to see us grow and so is not afraid to challenge us to see where true growth lies. That's where the real development occurs for us as individuals and as church: 'we must move from a God-emperor whose glory is to be found in our obedience, to a loving God whose glory is to be found in our growth.'

The last observation I'd like to make on the book is about fear. Geoff has proposed that the church has placed itself in a 'prison of not being able to be wrong'. The challenge to us is to transcend and to break down the walls of that prison. To see that we are open in freedom to scripture, to tradition, to experience and to reflections on that experience. One of the saddest things in this book was to read the word of thanks: 'It says much about the need for change that, in the atmosphere that prevails within the church, I would be creating difficulties for them if I gave their names. They know who I mean, and to each one of them I offer my sincere thanks for their comments and support.'

I mean no disrespect to the women theologians who said they couldn't be here. Being one of four male speakers here (and not all of us profess to be theologians), I say: If there is to be true change in our church the women theologians have to be here. We have to transcend the fear and to have the confidence that truth and the great gifts of the Spirit — love, joy, faith and hope — will see us through. Bishop Ray Benjamin who was fond of telling his fellow bishops, 'Disaster is only a phone call away', early in his term as bishop of Townsville decided with his Senate of priests to convene a meeting of the diocesan clergy in mid-August.

The apostolic nuncio contacted him and demanded that masses be offered in the remote country parishes like Julia Creek and Hughenden on the feast of the Assumption. Ray went back to his priests and they indicated that no other date for the meeting was possible. Ray raised his hands in the air and declared: 'Well, where can they send you from Townsville?' He realised that he was a free man; free of ambition and free of the desire to satisfy the Vatican at every turn, he was a bishop free to discern the best for his remote country diocese in dialogue with his priests and the people of God — not simply doing his own thing, but prayerfully deciding what was best in the circumstances so remote from Rome and the strictures of the apostolic nunciature.

In that context I'd like to conclude with the meditation that Geoff writes on the chapter ‘A Government in which all Participate':

I will be your God and you shall be by people. This idea, expressed time and again in the scriptures, expresses the essence of the Covenant, the great bond that united God and the people of Israel.

No people, however, can live its life with only a vast idea to guide it. People demand concrete expressions of the larger idea, homely, down to earth things with which they can identify. So the Covenant was made concrete in priest, prophet, king, law and land.

It is, unfortunately, all too possible to accept the beautiful ideas but reject all proposals for their concrete expression.

And yet a denial of imperfect and contingent expressions quickly becomes a denial of the beautiful ideas themselves.

The key to this is: trusting, respectful dialogue; conversation despite difference; and transcending those differences. Let's recall again what Benedict wrote to Hans Kung:

I am especially grateful to you for emphasising what we have continued to have in common and the mutual human respect despite all the controversies, which must always remain a matter of course for Christians. Of course I am prepared to have a conversation with you.

Let's continue that conversation and be the catalyst that produces a better Church. Thank you.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation. The above text is from his speech entitled 'The Catalyst That Produces a Better Church', from the Catalyst for Renewal Forum, Salvation Army Hall, Sydney, 28 March 2009.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thousands of thanks to you Frank Brennan for your reasoned remarks and support of Geoff Robinson and his book. Wish we had more like you in Church.

Rosemary Keenan | 17 April 2009  

I always pull back when someone plays the "love" card. The only people I know of who can use this card correctly and successfully are the saints.

Gabriel Austin | 18 April 2009  

I found Fr Brennan's comments very positive and gives a message we should all take to heart. In essence he says "ask not what your church can do for you but ask what can you do for your church"

Ken Fuller | 18 April 2009  

All good. But what about the other victims of abuse? Where do they go to heal? The non sexual abuse? Can we as a church provide a haven for people who feel abused?

catherine o'brien | 26 April 2009  

Similar Articles

What’s wrong with Voting for Jesus?

  • Scott Stephens
  • 27 February 2007

I must confess to growing bored very quickly when I hear that our real problem today is the erosion of spirituality, of belief in a deeper dimension of life, and the consequent rampant materialism. From a properly Christian perspective, the problem today is not materialism, but religion itself.


Muslim at the heart of an Indonesian Christian office

  • Greg Soetomo
  • 27 February 2007

When I reflect on this conversation, I am also struck by how different what I see in daily life is from what I read and watch in the media about about Muslim militants, the clash between Christians and Muslims, fundamentalism, or terrorism. Every age has its own false ideas. In our time, it is the notion that identifies Islam with hostility and aggression.