New horizons for justice and solidarity

Posted 9 September 2018 10:43am

EREA Congress 2018 - Charting New Horizons 7 - 9 September 2018

Address by Fr Frank Brennan SJ, 8 September 2018

Listen

I join with you in acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. It is such a privilege to be speaking here on the same platform and immediately after Senator Patrick Dodson. I well recall the last time Patrick and I shared the stage here in Melbourne was the Reconciliation Convention in May 1997 marking the 30th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. Patrick chaired the convention and I was the rapporteur.

We then spoke again at St Ignatius' Church Richmond on 29 October 1997. Dr Nugget Coombs had died earlier in the day. I had flown from Northern Australia, picked up my mail at my office in Sydney, and flown on to Melbourne. A few weeks before, I had run into Gough Whitlam at Sydney airport on my return from Broome. Gough kindly offered me a lift in his Commonwealth limousine to my office at Kings Cross. I had with me a bag of mangoes. On arrival at my office, I asked Gough, 'Do you like mangoes?' He replied, 'I do, and Dame Margaret loves them.' So I parted with my mangoes and never gave them another thought.

When I met up with Patrick Dodson, I said, 'I see there is not going to be any apology from the government.' At the Reconciliation convention, Michael Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson had presented their report Bringing Them Home. I had then written to the Prime Minister suggesting a formula of words for an apology which I thought was within the policy constraints earlier set down by the government. Patrick Dodson replied with words to the effect, 'No, we met with (Minister) Herron on Friday and he intimated that the door was still open.' I was mortified. I had in my bag a letter from Senator John Herron, predating the previous Friday, in which he replied on behalf of the Prime Minister informing me that an apology was out of the question. I thought the days had gone when a non-Indigenous person, even a well-meaning one like me, would be informed of the government's position ahead of the respected Indigenous leaders.

The following week we all gathered in Sydney at St Mary's Cathedral for Nugget's state funeral. On the morning of the funeral, I received a phone call from the cathedral administrator asking me to come early as there was a problem with Patrick Dodson's proposed eulogy. There was some suggestion that the Prime Minister might not attend. I expressed my incredulity that such a eulogy would be subject to government scrutiny before delivery in the cathedral. We do live in a country with a proud tradition of separating church and state. When I arrived at the cathedral I met with Pat Dodson and various others including church and family representatives. Some of us suggested some changes to Pat's draft. He graciously accepted those changes. I was then told that I would have to telephone the Prime Minister. I did not think that appropriate, and thought it best to phone one of his office staff with whom I was then dealing on Wik issues. She asked me what changes Mr Dodson had made to his text, as she already had a copy of his original draft. I said it was inappropriate that I tell her the changes. I assured her that some of us had read the revised text and thought it was within the bounds of suitable comment at such an occasion. She protested, 'But the PM does not have a right of reply.' I said, 'That's right. This is a funeral.' Getting nowhere, I contacted the head of the Cabinet office, and explained my concerns: this is a eulogy to be given at a funeral in the cathedral, and thus it is not appropriate that government exercise censorship or a veto; and furthermore, this is a eulogy to be delivered by the most respected Aboriginal leader in the country for Coombs who would roll in his grave if he thought that the prime minister could exercise any control over what was said on this occasion. The points were readily understood, and I rushed to the front of the cathedral in time to welcome the VIPs. Prime Minister Howard was formal. Sir William Deane was warm. And then came Gough who extended his hand and exclaimed, 'Father, the mangoes were magnificent.' And it was magnificent that we had reached the stage as a nation that Aboriginal people would dance around the coffin and an Aboriginal leader would speak in a cathedral honouring the memory of one of the country's finest public servants, in the presence of the country's leadership. There have been splendid moments of national reconciliation even when the tensions and misunderstandings between government and Indigenous people endure.

As leaders like Gough Whitlam and Patrick Dodson have attested, if we are to imagine and strive towards New Horizons for Justice and Solidarity, we need conviction, perseverance, capacity for compromise, relationships of trust, humour.

At my old Christian Brothers primary school, Nudgee Junior College, the motto was: Signum Fidei: sign of faith. To seek out new horizons for justice and solidarity, you need to follow those signs of faith, being practically grounded in hope, and all-inclusive in love.

I recently spoke to the Catholic Secondary Schools Principals of Australia. One of your EREA principals Dan McMahon opened that conference with a bold declaration: 'Our bruised and battered Church has never been in greater need of our schools.'

I want to console you this morning with Pope Francis' disturbing reassurance: 'A faith that does not trouble us, is a troubled faith; a faith that does not make us grow, is a faith that needs to grow'.

This conference provides you with the opportunity to explore and reach out to new horizons — horizons for reconciliation and spirituality, horizons for justice and solidarity, horizons for global solidarity and education, horizons for inclusive community, and horizons for liberating education. To do this you need to fire your imaginations, strengthen your witness, and confirm your role as enablers helping all members of your school communities to shape their world view, their understanding of sin and grace, of oppression and liberation, of mercy and forgiveness.

We don't know the future shape of our world, but we know the contours of hope which point to a better life for all. Like Mary we can pray:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

What are three opportunities Catholic Schools in the Edmund Rice Tradition should embrace into the future?

At the end of this address you will go to your app and decide on what opportunities Catholic Schools in the Edmund Rice Tradition should embrace into the future. You will be hearing from Kirsty Sword Gusmao on global solidarity and Emma Alberici on Inclusive Community, so I will not deal with the critical issues of refugees, asylum seekers, migration, multiculturalism and foreign policy. Up front let me give five questions from which you might choose three opportunities for expanding your horizons for justice and solidarity:

1. How are we to give women their place at the table when they cannot preside at eucharist or when girls are excluded from our schools?

2. How can we ensure that our church is more accountable and transparent and true to the gospel in the wake of the royal commission?

3. What should be our approach to employment of LGBTI staff and to pastoral care of LGBTI students in the wake of the same sex marriage debate?

4. How are we to assure Indigenous Australians their place at the table when governments make laws and policies impacting especially on them and their heritage, denying them a voice to parliament but providing them with a government appointed envoy?

5. What should we be drawing from Pope Francis to animate our Edmund Rice schools about stewardship of the environment, responsibility for the poor, spiritual contentment in an age of disruption, and getting the mix right of truth, justice, love, mercy and joy?

Overview of the spirituality and action of justice and solidarity

This gathering is a sacramental moment, food for the journey, sustaining us and providing a sense of true north as we head off again in all directions into the complexity of the family relations of our students and staff and into the disruption of our politics and public life.

Pope Francis gives us four steps so that our school communities might imagine and reach for new horizons for justice and solidarity. His teachings in Laudato Si' and Amoris Laetitia urge us to expand our horizon of concern to include the whole of creation, and to expand our circle of inclusion to welcome all to the table, whether that be the table of learning, the table of public deliberation, or even the table of the Lord.

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

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

2. Bringing conscience to bear

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

'[First] conscience can do more than recognise that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.

'[Second, conscience] can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God and

'[Third, through conscience we can] come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one's limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.

'In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realised.'

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

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

4. Always discerning

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

'We should always remember that discernment is a grace. Even though it includes reason and prudence, it goes beyond them, for it seeks a glimpse of that unique and mysterious plan that God has for each of us, which takes shape amid so many varied situations and limitations. It involves more than my temporal well-being, my satisfaction at having accomplished something useful, or even my desire for peace of mind. It has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, with the real purpose of my life, which nobody knows better than he.'

When seeking new horizons for justice and solidarity, the difficult decisions are not choosing between right and wrong, but discerning the greater good in the light of our students' needs, the resources we have to hand, and the challenges of the world into which those students are stepping. The Church's norms, though sound, are not sufficient. It's not just a matter of collating the evidence and making a prudent judgment. There's something bolder we're asked for: the grace born of a deep interior freedom and a passion to do more for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God here and now in our schools embedded in the Edmund Rice tradition.

What are the challenges and opportunities facing Australian Catholic schools in relation to justice and solidarity? Here are just 5

1. Women and the Church

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

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

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

No one doubts the pastoral sensitivity of Pope Francis. But the Church will continue to suffer for as long as we not engage in open, ongoing discussion and education about this issue. The official position is no longer comprehensible to most people of good will, and not even those at the very top of the hierarchy have a willingness or capacity to explain it. In schools committed to embracing the future adapting the Edmund Rice Tradition to the new horizons to justice and solidarity, gender inequality is no longer an option.

2. A safe, transparent and accountable post royal commission church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was respectful silence from the laity or the presumption that 'Father or Brother knows best' that compounded the problems in the past. I have said and written things to bishops in the last five years that I would never have said or written in previous times. This is not Ordinary Time. We are dealing with an extraordinary moment of change in our church. The old-style clerical pyramid has had its day.

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

Listen particularly to the voices of the women who sat on the Truth Justice and Healing Council. Let me share with you a sample of their remarks:

Elizabeth Proust, Deputy Chair: 'It is clear from the Royal Commission's findings that the dysfunctional governance of the Church aggravated the harm done by sexual abuse. The need for reform in this area is long overdue and the delay and obfuscation in responding to the Royal Commission on this topic, and on many others, will only worsen the alienation felt by the people of the Church, and continue to make the Church an irrelevance in our society.'

Professor Maria Harries: 'I still need to be convinced that the structures of the church implicated in their permitting of such abuse and the protection of perpetrators will really reform itself. Change is obligatory and it is differentially confronting and frightening for various elements of our church. The recognition of the problems we face as a church is a good start to finding solutions.'

Sr Maree Marsh: 'The church cannot undo all of the harm done in the past, but it has the responsibility to do all that is within its power to create an environment in which people will treat other people with respect, dignity and justice. The healing that is necessary involves a long process and will take courage, compassion, openness and patience. Above all it will take faith — faith in one another and faith that God is with us in this journey.'

Professor Rosemary Sheehan: Whilst the Commission has made recommendations to improve the safety of children in institutions, the reality is that children are at much greater risk of child sexual abuse in the intrafamilial sphere than in community groups. Whilst drawing up standards for the latter, is very significant, the former is ignored. And this has changed the conversation in the community about what constitutes child sexual abuse, to the cost of victims, in today's society. It has become more difficult to get attention to the high risk children, in problematic family structures, to children in high risk communities, or to the increase in sibling abuse. These risks are significant, but are overlooked. This lack of contemporaneous concern renders the Commission concerns for children at risk of child sexual abuse flawed.

Dr Marian Sullivan: The Royal Commission has challenged many parts of Australian society and its institutions. The Catholic Church has been scrutinised extensively and critiqued harshly. As a member of the Council I have moved from a disposition of disappointment with the Church to one of satisfaction that the Church represented by the Council has unflinchingly faced the shame of its past behaviour and any inadequacies of redress. Although not widely acknowledged, the cooperation that the Council gave to the Royal Commission has been exemplary and is proof of our resolve.

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

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

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

Marriage as a sacrament is one of those graced moments in the life of the believing Christian who is a Catholic. As our Catechism puts it:

'The sacraments are "of the Church" in the double sense that they are "by her" and "for her". They are "by the Church", for she is the sacrament of Christ's action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are "for the Church" in the sense that "the sacraments make the Church", since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons.'

The sacrament of marriage typically is celebrated by two baptised persons (a man and a woman) who are free to marry, are committed to each other exclusively for life, and are open to the bearing and nurturing of their children from the union.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the plebiscite campaign I received one letter from a bishop who quoted an anonymous complaint from a member of the laity to another unnamed bishop. The bishop writing to me said, 'I realise that you will probably also have had many communications congratulating you on distinguishing yourself from the Church on this matter.' In response, I assured him that the overwhelming expressions of gratitude and congratulations had come not from people outside the Church thinking I was distinguishing myself from the Church on this matter. They came, and in their droves, from Catholics grateful that a priest had been prepared to give expression to what they themselves thought, and in good faith, congratulating me on putting a position which assured them that they were still members of the Church in good standing despite their strong disagreement with statements made by some of our bishops. I told the bishop about a woman unknown to me who approached me at a public event. She clasped my hand and thanked me profusely, saying, 'I am one of those Catholics who is holding on just by a thread, and you are that thread. Thanks so much for all you do and say.' Many well educated and reflective Catholics have thanked me for making the church sound credible and compassionate in the public square. I said to the complaining bishop, 'I readily concede that these people are not your preferred sorts of Catholic — just as the anonymous complainant in your letter is not my preferred sort of Catholic. But I think we need to accept that they are all Catholics in good faith'. I recalled an incident which occurred just the day before I wrote to the bishop. I was celebrating the 30th wedding anniversary mass for a couple I had married. After mass, their sister in law who converted to Catholicism when marrying a Catholic and who takes a strong interest in the Catholic education of her daughters at a leading Catholic school thanked me for my appearance on Q&A saying, 'You were just so wonderful. You make us look credible. Thank you.'

I appreciate that some of our bishops remain convinced that no Catholic in good faith could have voted yes. I think these bishops need to concede that a majority of Catholics in good faith who did vote voted yes. And that included some of our bishops, many of our priests, the majority of the flock, and a large majority of our federal politicians who are Catholic. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, an accomplished scripture scholar and now president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, got it right when interviewed on national television during the plebiscite campaign. He told David Speers:

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

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

I take heart from the pastoral letter of Vincent Long:

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

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

Bishop Bill Wright in his pastoral letter said:

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

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

4. A reconciled nation with appropriate recognition of Indigenous Australians

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

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

In his delightful self-deprecating mode, Dexter says that Harold Holt was looking for someone who was 'honest, just, sympathetic with underdeveloped or deprived peoples, knows his way backwards through the public service and [would] not squeal when he was kicked.' When asked by Holt to join the three-member Council for Aboriginal Affairs with Coombs and Stanner, Dexter replied, 'But I don't know anything about Aboriginals.' Holt said, 'That's why I asked you to take on the job. I'm frightened by the people who think they do know something!' Dexter then said, 'Mr Prime Minister, you are asking me to open Pandora's box!' Holt replied, 'That is precisely what I am asking you to do, Barrie.' These 'three wise men' or 'the three white men', as they were often called, helped navigate the policy changes for land rights and self-determination. It was my privilege to preach at the funerals of both Coombs and Dexter in 1997 and 2018, having attended the funeral of the third wise white man Professor WEH Stanner way back in 1981.

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

'The late Mr Barrie Dexter most certainly paved a promising pathway to right the way for Aboriginal people to live a more fulfilled and decent life in this country. When I gave the eulogy at the funeral of my late uncle Charlie Perkins, I recalled that he was an "unorthodox public servant". I know Mr Dexter would have understood that very well. Mr Dexter on the other hand, I would characterise as an "orthodox public servant" who was well equipped for his tasks.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Being stewards of the environment, being responsible for those who are poor, and finding spiritual contentment in an age of disruption

Like Pope Francis, we need to question the myth of unlimited progress which is the mantra of all our major political parties and of all our major media outlets. In Laudato Si' Francis says, 'If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.' (#78) He boldly asserts, 'Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.' (#104) He is clearly at odds with those who assert that the key to the future is simply growing the pie, so the poor can get more while the rich need not get less than what they already have, and that growing the pie is as good a way as any ultimately to save the planet. Francis doesn't buy this status quo position. He thinks there is a need to limit the size of the pie, for the good of the planet, and there is a need to redistribute the pie so that the poor get their equitable share.

Let's call to mind Pope Francis's declaration in Laudato Si':

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

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

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

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

Imagining new horizons for justice and solidarity, ask yourself: Is my school a manger where God is daily manifest in the children of this earth? Are our students bored with Catholicism because our own faith is only intellectual or lukewarm? Do I really believe that My faith can become real touching my heart, my soul, my spirit and my whole being?

I recall again my old school motto: Signum Fidei: sign of faith. To seek out new horizons for justice and solidarity, we need to follow those signs of faith, being practically grounded in hope, and all-inclusive in love. I plead with you to recall:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because the Lord has anointed you
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent you to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn.
This IS the word of the Lord!

Let's recreate the manger in our own local community, in our domestic church, and in our school. And remember, when you step out seeking new horizons for justice and solidarity, the mangoes are magnificent! And now it's time to go to your app and identify those three opportunities for the future.

 

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

 

← Back to listing