St Mary's, Bishop Robinson and the value of dialogue


Confroning Power and Sex in the ChurchOn Monday I passed St Mary's Church South Brisbane, en route to a national human rights consultation at the local Convention Centre. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags were flying outside the church as were proclamations of Aboriginal treaty and the protest chant, 'We shall not be moved'.

I had seen and heard Fr Peter Kennedy in the media. His interview on Richard Fidler's ABC Conversation Hour was one of the most moving presentations about priestly pastoral ministry I have heard on the national airwaves. He wept openly as he recalled the death of an Aboriginal man in jail. His Q&A appearance with Tony Jones left me a little perplexed about what he actually believed about Jesus and the Church.

Knowing him and Archbishop Bathersby I was saddened that the standoff between such a pastoral bishop and a pastoral priest had come to this. Talk of mediation by retired High Court judge Ian Callinan has done nothing to lift my sadness. These disputes are not about property rights, and they are not resolved by assertion of property rights or conflicting claims of orthodoxy and pastoral practice.

The mainstream media has now canonised Kennedy and demonised Bathersby. The former may be justified, but the latter is not. Bathersby and Kennedy are both very pastoral, down to earth, no nonsense men. And yet it has come to this.

On Saturday I will participate in a public seminar in Sydney with over 300 Catholics gathering to discuss Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.

This is a pastoral book, which does not purport to be a learned theological text. It is a broad sweeping tome which highlights the concerns of a pastoral bishop reflecting on his years as a teacher and administrator. He devoted most of his later years as a bishop to improving the exercise of authority in shaping policies and practices appropriate for dealing with the curse of sexual abuse within the Church.

Bishop Geoffrey will be in attendance. Unsurprisingly Cardinal Pell declined the invitation to speak at the seminar. But he went one step further and prohibited the use of church property for such a discussion.

Last year the Australian Catholic Bishops provided Bishop Geoffrey's publisher with a bonanza when they issued their brief, simplistic statement claiming that 'the Church's Magisterium teaches the truth authoritatively in the name of Christ. The book casts doubt upon these teachings.'

Though Robinson's fellow bishops conceded that 'the authority entrusted by Christ to his Church may at times be poorly exercised, especially in shaping policy and practice in complex areas of pastoral and human concern', they went on to claim: 'This does not invalidate the Church's authority to teach particular truths of faith and morals.'

The condemnation of the book without detailed argument but with the bald invocation of episcopal authority guaranteed sales which would otherwise have eluded the author and publisher.

The Church cannot thrive when its bishops feel constrained by fear, seeing no need to explain how and why they differ even from one of their own number who is game enough to express dissent from the Vatican's position. In his general acknowledgement of thanks to the unnamed persons who helped him with the book, Robinson writes, '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.'

Robinson expresses doubts about the Church's prudence and wisdom in making infallible declarations about Mary. He questions papal and Vatican declarations prohibiting discussion about the ordination of women. He asserts that the Church has locked itself in 'the prison of not being able to be wrong'. He nails the danger for church authorities who deny the primacy of the formed and informed conscience of the individual, and who purport to teach and rule authoritatively with power which is neither transparent nor publicly reasoned.

The recent PR disasters out of Rome, with the reception of the holocaust denying bishop and with the public's genuinely misinterpreted reading of the Pope's prescription for solving the AIDS crisis in Africa, highlight that hierarchical and secretive management of debate and dissent is no longer a prudent option for a Church committed to proclaiming the gospel as good news for all.

It is time for dialogue under sponsorship of our bishops. We all know that the majority of our bishops agree with many of Bishop Robinson's assertions. They might not choose his arguments or mode of public expression. But the time has long passed for the landowners to deny the peasants an opportunity to reflect conscientiously on the truth and on good pastoral practice. Were the bishops to participate more openly in the dialogue we would all be able to appreciate their human, pastoral presence and not just that of the Kennedys and Robinsons.

If there had been more open dialogue between John Bathersby and Peter Kennedy and between George Pell and Geoffrey Robinson, the Catholic Church would be more the Church that Jesus would want it to be.

The community roundtables in the national human rights consultation provide a public space where people of wildly divergent views can respectfully speak and be heard. Why can't we provide such spaces in the Church which, as John Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor, 'puts herself always and only at the service of conscience'?

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation. He will speak at the Catalyst for Renewal seminar on Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church this Saturday at the Salvation Army Hall, 140 Elizabeth St, Sydney.


Topic tags: st mary's south brisbane, peter kennedy, john bathersby, george pell, geoffrey robinson, power and sex



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Congratulations to Fr Frank Brennan for providing a voice of reason in the discussion. At a time when there is much attention to interfaith dialogue, the need for intrafaith dialogue is just as important.

Our bishops must support the process of dialogue. At the moment, it is institutions like the ABC who are facilitating the process more than the Church itself. The medium of the internet is also a powerful way in which this dialogue can be supported. Congratulations to Eureka Street for making this possible.

Constant Mews | 27 March 2009  

As always, brilliantly argued and beautifully written.

Until four lines from the end - '... the Church that Jesus would want it to be'. This assertion of some special (privileged?) insight into the thinking of the second person of the Trinity is the very thing that the article quite properly seeks to criticise.

Frank O'Shea | 27 March 2009  

Excellent article, thank you. Whilst dialogue is a key to moving forward, I think it all starts further down at the roots - the roots that Jesus taught us and prescribed so simply with the concepts of compassion, forgiveness and love. Dialogue is wonderful, but it is amoral by nature; it needs to be guided by deeper forces and values.

I think the Catholic church needs to assess itself against The Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus' hope for a new world. Dialogue and communication will always be the greatest cog for action. Humans are, after all, communicative beings.

Tim | 27 March 2009  

YES! Let us speak . . and more importantly, let us be heard. We all know that banning dialogue doesn't put an end to it. It's just taken behind closed doors . . . and inclined to fester in the gloom!

glen avard | 27 March 2009  

Frank Brennan's response to this controversy is among the few which have expressed the issues so clearly and so well.

I also applaud Eureka Street for the range of views published - to use Frank's words: for providing a space where widely divergent views can be respectfully spoken and heard.

Jo Dunin | 27 March 2009  

The respectful discussions and dialoguing of conscience that Frank speaks of are already happening: around kitchen tables, in prayer and discussion groups, over a beer etc. The problem for the Bishops and Vatican is that they have not been officially involved. They are now seen to be out of touch because of their perceived non-involvement.

Official pastoral leadership that does not seem to want open dialogue between equals is having their authority questioned and undermined - and rightly so. People of good will are waiting for Roman Catholic church leadership to join the 20th century, let alone the 21st. We cannot wait forever.

Andrew McAlister | 27 March 2009  

How true is this statement about Jesus the ever forgiving God.

"If there had been more open dialogue between John Bathersby and Peter Kennedy and between George Pell and Geoffrey Robinson, the Catholic Church would be more the Church that Jesus would want it to be. "

Rita Kidd | 27 March 2009  

Frank Brennan SJ. your statement is inspired.Keep up the 'good works' in the footsteps of Jesus.

John M Costigan | 27 March 2009  

As one would expect from Fr. Frank,this artiole is a brilliant analysis - thanks Frank. An aspect of the church I find very difficult is the lack of genuine dialogue and discernment. As I have found from personal experience to raise issues concerning church governance is to be regarded as a person of 'dissent' - even though one can verify statements from church history and development of doctrine.

It is no coincidence that the most repeated injunction in the scriptures is 'do not be afraid'. What are some church leaders afraid of? Why not allow the Spirit to work though the prayerful endeavours of the whole church in its quest for truth and grace enhancing ways of being Christian?

kevin treston | 27 March 2009  

If married clergy and women priests are the answer to our problems, then why are the other churches (which have married ministers and women ministers) still disintegrating and struggling to recruit people to the ministry?

DJB | 27 March 2009  

Archbishop Bathersby should have moved on South Brisbane years ago, when it was revealed that an invalid formula was being used for the sacremant of baptism. That is very serious indeed. Whatever a priest does he must at least celebrate the sacraments according to the rites laid down by the Catholic Church for the good of souls and bodies. A priest who doesn't want to do that should have the honest self-awareness to question his presence in the Church as a minister.

Fr Bennan compounds the problem by invoking competition between the "claims of orthodoxy and pastoral practice". Understood correctly, these two concepts are in no way antagonistic but rather symbiotic. The orthodox is the pastoral and the pastoral is the orthodox. Or, as Jesus put it, "The truth will make you free". This is a principle which both Archbishop Bathersby and Fr Kennedy seem to find difficulty in grasping.

Sylvester | 27 March 2009  

Theree's surely a better analogy than 'the landowners and the peasants'.

For a start, the peasants in this analogy were the people who actually bought the land..and paid for the buildings subsequently erected on them...a practice that continues today.

Pope John Paul 11 might have been more helpful and precise had he said The church SHOULD always put herself etc.

Just a single word...(the word should) but it identifies the difference between what is practiced and what is preached

We are all...clergy and laity alike...all part and parcel of the royal priesthood. I think one, Paul, went into even greater detail...

It serves no good to maintain this artificial and very legalised divide.

Brian Haill | 27 March 2009  

Amen to all of this.

gerard bennett | 27 March 2009  

Jesus said 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do' and 'love your enemies'; this applies within the church where Jesus coming is not to condemn but to bring new life. You don't need special 'privileged' knowledge to know the mind of Christ.

John | 27 March 2009  

Once again a very precise and balanced analysis - as we have come to expect. Frank provides great service to the Australian Church in this was - as has Bishop Robinson.

I - along with Brian Hail - was somewhat taken aback by the analogy of the 'landowners' and the 'peasants', but some of the bishops obviously see the rest of us in this light - poor, uneducated and weak and so needing to be protected from being led astray. Such patronising performances as banning reasoned and reasonable discussion on Church (belonging to the Body of Christ) properties has surely to be challenged and consigned to the pages of history. The more humble and open the dialogue the better.

Shane Wood cfc | 27 March 2009  


Frank i think we have an insight into the church that jesus would like in his praxis - 'I no longer call you servants but friends' - equals. It also needs to be remembered that peasants were not necessarily poor just not born into the right class, however one acquires status.

And Sylvetser, consider that orthodoxy is orthodoxy because it traditionally had (seized?) the power to destroy (in some cases literally) the opposition. Christian history is full of UNchrisitanity.

Why are people scared? Easy - some stand to lose their status jobs and life's work.

Hilary | 27 March 2009  

congratulations to Fr Frank Brennan on such insightful comment. I still live in hope of sitting at the round table of dialogue. The peasants - who are both female and male - are already engaging in vociferous dialogue around their myriad of less formal tables, utterly perplexed at the time it is taking to be invited as adults into the conversation.

vivien williams | 27 March 2009  

How refreshing it is to hear Frank speak so sensibly and compassionately on these difficult issues. I meet the bewilderment of young people on a daily basis who try but cannot make headway in understanding the Church when it presents such a confused face.

Angela McCarthy | 27 March 2009  

Thank you Father Brennan for articulating so brilliantly my concerns for the the present state of our beloved church. At 81 - having experienced life in three continents - one being Africa - my sadness is that we have lost so many of our young people because of the lack of vision in embracing Vatican 2 aspirations and becoming the church I consider Jesus would want. My prayers go with you. PS Have just viewed your 2006 Manning Lecture - thank you so much.

annieclark | 27 March 2009  

What a concise statement so clear & frank. If only the Bishops' statement had more clarity and openness. If this book is so dangerous to Catholic Faith & Morals!!!! as the Bishops statement suggests, then what steps are our Bishops taking to confront the dark gloom of clerical sexual abuse. That is surely a greater evil and a greater danger to Faith & Morals than any other scandal I can think of, so many victims!!! Can the Bishops speak with any credibility on wider moral issues when the church still refuses to humbly acknowledge that world wide research is needed to seek the varied reasons why so many Catholic priests have committed such crimes often against innocent children.

Margaret M.Coffey | 27 March 2009  

It was inspiring to read such a pastoral concise and informative article by Father Brennan in Eureka Street on Bishop Robinson's book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church and on Father Peter Kennedy's unfortunate situation with the Archbishop. Dialogue by compassionate clergy is the only way for these problems to be solved and the often misinformed reports in the media do little to solve the problems often exacerbating the situation. It is great to have Eureka Street's articles available on the email and a pity more people do not have the opportunity to read and digest them. Congratulations Father Brennan and Eureka Street we do enjoy your informative articles. Thank you.

Pamela Byrnes | 27 March 2009  

Like some other correspondents, I, too, find the "landowner - peasant" metaphor employed by Fr Frank Brennan theologically inapposite, but I find even more objectionable the dichotomy between truth and pastoral practice Fr Brennan presents in defence of Bishop Robinson's book.

I also regard Fr Brennan's position on the 'primacy' of conscience as philosophically flawed, more Kantian than Thomistic, just as I regard his understanding of authority in the Church as more Protestant than Catholic.

It would be helpful, perhaps, if Fr Brennan were to articulate his understanding of "dialogue", and his criteria for assuming "the Catholic Church would be more the Church that Jesus would want it to be". As it stands in his article, this judgment seems to be based on the "WWJW" method of discernment rather than on the due processes of an informed conscience according to Catholic tradition.

John Kelly | 27 March 2009  

My spirit is broken for the catholic church I grew to fall in love with. Whatever happened to the power of God's love to voice an opinion negating Christ or that of His Mother.
What would happen if we rejected God?
We all have the right to seek the truth and God's love is not a silent voice waiting to be heard to reclaim the spirit in Jesus according to ones conscience.

Again what would happen if there were no dialogue?

This story has hit me like a nail on a coffin to the point of tears because I am struggling with my faith in the life of the church or our church that I have taken time out from during the last year.

Last night I came close to either challenge the church or leave her. If I go or stay? Without love I am nothing and it is that one powerful word love that is so hard to practise. Like a voice from the heavens I can hear John Paul, Veritas Splendor par excellence.

When I overcome a deep episode of depression and spiritual burn out I will come back and serve my God with a pure conscience.

I will pray for our Bishops, Priests and laity leaving this article to the intercession of Blessed Mary MacKillop.

Tamara | 27 March 2009  

Congratulations Fr Frank on a well presented presentation of an issue that is very much in need of clarification. I have read and discussed Bishop Robinson's book with the clergy and parish councils of my region while working in a Queensland parish last year.Not surprisingly all involved supported his loving concern for Mother Church.

Gavin | 27 March 2009  

Thanks Frank Brennan for your words. As one who has both read and studied Geoffrey Robinson's book and found it enlightening. heartening and a positive contribution to broad"Church" it is helpful when priests such as yourself come out in saying (more or less) why don't we at least discuss these issues?

Rosemary Keenan | 27 March 2009  

As Kevin Treston states, any attempt at dialogue is viewed by many in the church as 'dissent'. To the scriptural injunction of 'do not be afraid', I would add another: "love drives out fear". Our church leaders need to trust that lay people are trying to debate honestly. After all, one of the mysteries of the Rosary is Jesus being found by his parents in the temple, where he was listening to and questioning the religious teachers. In following Christ, while we the laity should listen, an informed conscience is also entitled to be allowed the dignity of questioning the church's leaders.

On a specific point raised by Frank Brennan, a reasonable case for ordaining women is put by John Brunt - a Seventh Day Adventist minister, here.

It is certainly more convincing than our own church’s rationale for refusing women’s ordination.

Our leadership’s fear of dialogue is demonstrated by the Curial investigation into Bishop Morris of Toowoomba for having the temerity to suggest discussion of alternative models of priesthood, such as married people and single women.

Incidentally, the church is unscriptural in insisting upon celibacy. Refer to 1 Timothy Chapter 3 and to Titus Chapter 1.

Frank Sheele | 27 March 2009  

Thank you Father Frank for this reasoned article that clearly outlines the issues that need to be faced by catholic people and their bishops and priests if the catholic church is to continue to be the lifegiving and loving community that I have been privileged to be part of through all the seasons of my life.

karyn oreilly | 28 March 2009  

I read not so long ago that in the USA they discovered a document from the 1960s that indicated an order from Rome that clergy who spoke out about sexual abuse could be excommunicated.

Is this true?

Why is there nowhere for people to go who have suffered abuse of a non sexual nature within the Church?

Why is there no place to address injustice within the Church?

Is the Church only interested in discussing social justice outside the Church?

Please give feedback.

catherine o'brien | 28 March 2009  

Well presented Fr Frank, I was prepared to give Fr Kennedy the benefit of the doubt with his unorthodox style, and as a hardcore Q&A fan I was looking forward to hearing him speak. I was shattered, seeing a priest deny the existence of Jesus Christ as God and the Holy Trinity left me much more supporting of the Bishop who definately should have acted sooner, any good person can be compassionate and care about he poor and outcast, but no Christian should deny that Jesus Christ is Lord and God and try to dilute the truth. Presentation of Mass, can deal with that to a degree, compromise and water down of the truth, never.

Joanofarc | 29 March 2009  

I was present at yesterday's seminar which illustrated the dialogue to which Frank referrred. The presenters were not all in agreement concerning their interpretations of Geoff Robinson's book but each was listened to with respect, each was able to explain further his particular point of view to those who wished to question (sadly no women theologian was on the podium even though many had been invited)

Thanks to the three men whose presentations stimulated lively discussion; thanks to the Salvation Army who allowed us to use their venue. May we all look forward to the time when such respectful listening and discussion can take place among all God's people - bishops, priests, laity - and cardinals - on church property and with the church's blessing.

Berenice Kerr | 29 March 2009  

Great article. It would be really wonderful if the Catholic Church would adopt Jesus' idea of tolerence and acceptance of all. Jesus accepted all, no matter what or who they were. Why can't the Catholic Church do the same? After all, most of the Catholic Church's traditions and celebrations originated from Pagan festivals and rites. Therefore, it seems very hypocritical to not accept those whose beliefs do not follow the creed of the Catholic Church.

Philippa Jayne Boyington | 29 March 2009  

The 400 plus crowd at the Salvation Army Hall on Saturday enjoyed the quote from Pope Benedict's letter to Hans Kung on 15 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."

Frank Brennan SJ | 29 March 2009  

Frank Brennan rightfully points out that it is time for dialogue within the Church.

Outside of the Church there is encouragement of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue. Official Church documents on these activities date back to Vatican II. Just at the moment, there is much planning for the Parliament of World Religions to be held in Melbourne later in the year.

However, within the Church there are still those who do not accept the validity of these forms of dialogue. There is division in the Church on this and other issues. Like the Corinthians who said “I am for Paul, I am for Apollos”, so in the Church today. People and groups can and do take entrenched positions. Isn’t there as much need for groups and individuals to come to the table in dialogue within the Church as there is between the Church and other religions and Christian denominations?

If the Church is going to expand its understanding of itself, then there has to be dialogue within it. This was in our minds when we were preparing some resources on evangelisation for use at the grassroots level. We wanted to find a way of kick-starting dialogue within the Australian Church on a variety of topics. But, as Frank Brennan points out, the structures and processes to enable people of differing views to listen, discuss and be heard in the Church are generally lacking.

Frank is saying it is time for intra-church dialogue under the sponsorship of the bishops. Whether this occurs in public spaces using the model of the national human rights consultation such as Frank has suggested, or whether it occurs in small groups in parishes, youth groups or schools such as we have been trying to encourage, the important thing is that it starts to happen! The first commitment of dialogue is listening!

Anne Lanyon, Columban Mission Institute, | 30 March 2009  

Why can everyone see this except those who need to?

John Goonan | 30 March 2009  

Frank it saddens me that even your comments focus on Peter Kennedy and Archbishop Bathersby as if the lay members of the Church do not exist! Of course they will make mature decisions according to their consciences but not without having to endure all kinds of hurt, from being treated as if they did not exist, being caricatured as radicals by those who do not know them, grieving by being forced
to leave behind a church where they have found nourishment and community, for some 20 years in many cases. No point in my attempting to cover the diversity of feelings and consequences for the membership of the community who also have been demonised from within and without our Church.

If only they had been involved from the beginning to the end (?) of this sad affair there may have been an experience of dialogue! The laity constitute some 99+ per cent of the Church but sadly our very existence let alone experience and influence are largely ignored. Maybe not by Eureka Street so thanks for the chance to comment. I am not a member of St Mary's but know a number of people who are.

Cath Courtney | 30 March 2009  

As we sow, we reap.

Reject Church teaching, abuse liturgical practice, defy legitimate authority, cry foul, seek media support from those who would like to see the Church buried, and call for "dialogue".

Get real.

John Kelly | 31 March 2009  

It is very interesting that planned giving programs appeal to parishioners to support "our church" but when Cardinal Pell wants to silence somebody, they can't speak on "church property". It is also interesting that spies/vigilantes have a hot line to the Bishops and the Vatican, but people who disagree with them don't get a hearing. Last year I wrote a letter of support for Bishop Geoffrey Robinson to the Australian Catholic Bishops and I didn't get the courtesy of a reply. How can dialogue take place under these conditions?

Ray Ham | 31 March 2009  

Fr Brennan's quotation from the Holy Father's letter to Kung would seem to be an argument for some sort of locus standii for this dissenting group to further espouse the errors in Bishop Robinson's book. Dialogue is clearly the new sacrament of such progressives!

Paul | 31 March 2009  

I agree with Frank Brennan that "These disputes are not about property rights, and they are not resolved by assertion of property rights".

However John Bathersby in his closing comment on an ABC interview some months ago, said that the bottom line to the whole issue was that the Diocese owned the real estate ie St Mary's. And he said this on the Religion Report, not the Property Report.

It's therefore a bit hard to also agree with Frank that "Bathersby is very pastoral", though he seems to be "down to earth" and "no nonsense", just like a real estate agent, or rental baliff.

Of course it's also true that realtors are not known for intra- (or in this case inter-) faith dialog either. This issue is one more world wide indicator that the Catholic Church has "lost it" , but remains oblivious to it's repeated, self inflicted crises.

In any other walk of life, new and more inspired, capable leadership would be arranged at many levels.

J P Brown | 01 April 2009  

Frank Brennan IS A GREAT THINKER and knows how to put the right words and logic together.I have a brother's LOVE for Peter and I therefor support him even if I doubt the wisdom of some of his statements having more doubts about Theology myself than Jesus's disciple THOMAS!Who knew him personally.Would that the two old Nudgee Boys could have both been speakers at a meeting of the Community at St. Mary's and had their own Q&A session in brotherly LOVE.If they are Followers of JESUS-JESUS IS LOVE!

JOHN KENNEDY | 07 April 2009  

I'm so relieved to hear Fr Brennan was at least a "little perplexed" by Fr Kennedy's Q&A testimony. I could find nothing in my beliefs that lined up with that man's fog of words. If Fr K is a Catholic, then I'm surely not and I reject his "Catholicism" root and branch.

Congratulations too, to Cardinal Pell for not allowing usurpers like Robinson to exploit church property, paid for by faithful Catholics over the centuries, for ends they would abhor. That is all the dialogue he and his ilk deserve.

And speaking of dialogue, let's go to the gospel Jesus and pick a model for ourselves. Yes, we could try out His socratic-style debates, wherein he set up his foes for a crushing defeat, no quarter taken. Then again, how about the "Go ... and sin no more!" admonition to the woman caught in adultery? Or the "Brood of vipers/whitened sepulchres" lashing of the pharisees? Or His "pastoral" cleansing of the temple with a whip, perhaps?

You're right, Fr Brennan: if only our bishops had faith in the grace of their office, were more Christ-like, and dialogued in His vein, the Church would be in a much healthier state.

Hugh | 21 April 2009  

It is interesting that the Church Father Brennan belongs to is the Church I was born into with its concern for social justice and the rights of the poor and unpowerful but a church which often seems elusive in its presence these days. Archbishop Bathersby is a good man but he is surrounded by dragons.

Ken Fuller | 24 April 2009  

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