Contributing to a confident, humble, listening, and questioning Church – pt 1

‘One of the great things about being Catholic is that one is part of a Church community with an authority structure in place to formulate teachings which can assist all the faithful to discern what it is that God is asking of them... But it must always be an invitation to dialogue.’ In this speech given on 26 June at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra, Fr Frank Brennan SJ reflects on the path forward for the Catholic Church.

On 26 June 2019, Fr Frank Brennan SJ gave a speech to the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra, titled ‘Our Church or Our Museum – Contributing to a confident, humble, listening and questioning Church’. In the first part of the talk, he reflects on the submissions to the Plenary Council 2020, and what it means to be a listening Church. Click here for part two. Or you can listen to the full talk at

  1. Making the Eucharist more readily available to the hungry

It is very heartening to see that over 220,000 people have already participated in the preparation for the 2020 Plenary Council and that the secretariat has received over 17,000 submissions including individual and collective submissions from many people gathered here this evening at the invitation of the Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn.

We are here, as ever, enjoying the ecumenical hospitality of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. Already the Concerned Catholics have hosted a number of events emphasising the need for renewed governance arrangements for our Church in the wake of the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and also the need for women to enjoy equality at all levels of leadership in our Church. I am in broad strong sympathy with all that has been proposed. I note that it is now 50 years ago that Karl Rahner when addressing the clergy of the Archdiocese of Venice said:

‘On the basis of the New Testament and the doctrinal nature of the priesthood we can however conceive of the priestly leader of a community in quite different terms. It is true that for the due exercise of his office he needs the approval of the leader of a wider regional church called a bishop, who for his part must once more live in union and harmony with the universal Church and so with the pope. This basic approval granted by the individual leader of the community is granted by the sacramental laying on of hands, which certainly in its turn requires specific prior conditions in the individual to be ordained. But the more integrated an individual community was from within itself, ie. from below, in terms of faith, communal Christian love, the energy of neighbourly love, and common responsibility for the world, the more it would in a true sense have the right to present from within itself an individual Christian known to it, living with it, integrated within it for the office of leadership, a Christian who had the necessary qualities for this position of priestly leadership and who would be recognised as such a leader by the sacramental laying on of hands on the part of the authorised bishop. Perhaps it will come about that the lack of priests which is becoming ever greater will compel us to admit the need for priests of this special kind and to allow them to be ordained, priests who come from the specific community concerned and “from below”.’

Fifty years on, the Kairos for this idea might have come at the forthcoming plenary council.

  1. According Women Their Place at the Table

Pope 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.’ Surely it must be 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 longtime 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 it does 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.

The claim that the matter ‘is not a question open to discussion’ cannot be maintained unless sacramental power also includes the power to determine theology and the power to determine canon law. Ultimately the Pope’s claim must be that only those possessed of sacramental power can determine the magisterium and canon law. Conceding for the moment the historic exclusion of women from the sacramental power of presidency at Eucharist, we need to determine if ‘the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life’ could include the power to contribute to theological discussion and the shaping of the magisterium and to canonical discussion about sanctions for participating in theological discussion on set topics such as the ordination of women. As Francis says, ‘Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.’

  1. Handing on the Faith and Church Practice/Allegiance to our Children

This evening, I want to suggest that even with changes to governance and participation, our Church remains at a cross roads between life and death, between relevance and irrelevance, between a Church and a museum in our post-modern world. After the recent Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, Pope Francis wrote in In Christus Vivit, ‘A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum.’

I know that many of you persevere, attending events such as this, wondering: how in God’s name can we make our Christian faith and our Catholic practice and heritage translatable, communicable, and attractive to our children and grandchildren? We no longer live in a society surrounded by people, most of whom are believers. Some of the best people we know are not. Some of the most outstanding leaders wrestling with the moral, political and economic questions of the Age find little if any sustenance in religious faith. In fact, religious faith is seen to be antithetical to the moral sense of the age, whether it be equal rights for all regardless of their sexual orientation or care for the planet with its burgeoning human population.

In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, why bother with the Church? In the wake of the Church’s ongoing failure to give women their place at the table, why persevere with the Church? In the wake of the Church’s wrong turn 50 years ago on the issue of birth control, why expect that the Church will in our lifetime play catch-up with the social mores of those who think the strident utterances of a group of celibate men ring hollow given the prevalence of child sexual abuse by those in the ranks of those supposedly celibate men at the very time that Humanae Vitae was promulgated and enforced, requiring that all future bishops sign up to it, without any corresponding requirement that they sign up, for example, to John XXIII’s insistence on adequate protection of human rights in all societies? Yes, Paul VI taught: ‘each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life’. But five years earlier, John XXIII taught that there were three demands for the juridical structure of any state:

‘The first is this: that a clear and precisely worded charter of fundamental human rights be formulated and incorporated into the State’s general constitutions.

‘Secondly, each State must have a public constitution, couched in juridical terms, laying down clear rules relating to the designation of public officials, their reciprocal relations, spheres of competence and prescribed methods of operation.

‘The final demand is that relations between citizens and public authorities be described in terms of rights and duties. It must be clearly laid down that the principal function of public authorities is to recognize, respect, co-ordinate, safeguard and promote citizens’ rights and duties.’

I’m not saying that John XXIII was necessarily right, nor that Paul VI was absolutely wrong. But I am saying that each published an encyclical which was an invitation to dialogue, an invitation to reflect on contemporary experience in the light of tradition.

There are many bishops who subscribe to Paul VI’s dictum on birth control but who have no time for John XXIII’s views on human rights and their best means of protection. I know that many Catholics would continue to distinguish the natural law definitions such as those contained in Humanae Vitae from the more contingent prescriptions contained in Pacem in Terris. But when the natural law is not self-evident or coherent to many of those naturally engaged in sexual relations, it is time to call a halt to pontifical pronouncements which purport to be ultimately definitive exceptionless norms.

One of the great things about being Catholic is that one is part of a Church community with an authority structure in place to formulate teachings which can assist all the faithful to discern what it is that God is asking of them, and this can be done by drawing upon the wealth of the tradition and the competence of the present community of scholars and leaders. But it must always be an invitation to dialogue. It must always be a call to form and inform one’s conscience, and to that conscience be true.

  1. Committing to Dialogue

Just last Friday when addressing a group of theologians, Pope Francis said, ‘Theologians have the task of encouraging ever anew the encounter of cultures with the sources of Revelation and Tradition. The ancient edifices of thought, the great theological syntheses of the past are mines of theological wisdom, but they cannot be applied mechanically to current questions. One should treasure them to look for new paths.’ He repeated his observation from Exsultate et Gaudete that ‘spiritual discernment does not exclude existential, psychological, sociological or moral insights drawn from the human sciences. At the same time, it transcends them. Nor are the Church’s sound norms sufficient. We should always remember that discernment is a grace, a gift.’ Whether the issue be birth control, how best to protect human rights or how best to protect the planet, the Church with its tradition and authority provides us with very sound norms. But these are not sufficient. We need to listen, question, and then discern in the light of people’s lived experience and in the light of new insights gained through the sciences. Francis leaves us in no doubt when we hear him telling theologians: ‘I studied in the period of decadent theology, decadent scholasticism, the age of the manuals. We used to joke that all the theses in theology could be proved by the following syllogism. First, things appear this way. Second, Catholicism is always right. Third, Ergo… In other words, a defensive, apologetic theology shut in a manual. We used to joke about it, but that was what we were presented with in that period of decadent scholasticism.’ Those days are over, or at least, they should be.

As Catholics, we are also able to participate in the key events of life with sacramental expression, liturgy and words which are sufficiently shared and known to allow us to give expression to the fulness of the human reality and a faith-filled reflection on that reality.

As our churches have emptied and as young people have felt the pull of neither obligation nor attraction, we all know the absence of these sharings. We are all now well used to attending funerals and weddings where God does not get a look in. And no matter what the grandeur, mystery or eloquence, we feel that there is something missing. We get to breathe sigh of relief when someone like Kim Beazley at Bob Hawke’s funeral is able to say:

‘Bob set great store by his pastor father Clem’s saying, “If you believe in the fatherhood of God, you must believe in the brotherhood of man.” He still firmly held the second part of Clem’s saying but no longer the first. But, for me, I am sustained by the belief he is in the arms of a loving God. He believed he would live in the hearts or at least the minds of those who knew him. Then, when we all pass, in the history books and stories of future generations, there he will reside while ever his nation abides.’

Or when the charismatic African American preacher Michael Curry can say at the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan: ‘French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was arguably one of the great minds, great spirits of the 20th century. Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest, scientist, a scholar, a mystic….(He said) that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love – it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.’

This evening I speak as a Jesuit who is about to leave Canberra after 11 years living and ministering in your midst. And that’s on top of another 17 years when I have been coming and going here in Canberra either to the ANU or to do business up at Parliament House. I take away wonderful memories of these years. I take great delight in remembering the first item of substantive business in the new Parliament House in 1988 recognising the place of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in our polity. I well remember the adrenalin flows during the native title debates in 1993 and 1997-8. I was privileged to chair the National Human Rights Consultation for the Rudd Government in 2009 and to serve on the Religious Freedom Review Panel for the Turnbull Government in 2018. In recent years a group of us has gathered religiously on the first Tuesday of the month in the Jesuit residence at Yarralumla to discuss the issues of the day, in our Church and in our society, in the light of our faith and of our religious tradition. For many years, I was privileged to assist Tony Frey as pastor at Curtin and Garran.

Your children and your grandchildren look at you and our Church today and they ask: what difference does faith really make in your life? How does your religious practice really change your life? How does your religious belief really change your understanding of yourself and our world? Where’s the value-add? Where’s the added hope, joy, and glory? Where’s the added capacity to confront sadness, evil, suffering, and death?

Even if up and coming generations are to believe in Jesus of Nazareth, why the need to be active members of a Church which espouses tradition and authority especially when as a social institution, the Church has been shown to be ill adapted to so many of the changes in the modern world?

  1. Keeping the Ship Afloat

I am preparing to take over as Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne next year. So I have started a little reading on John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, two of the great churchmen of Victorian England. Newman came across to Rome on 9 October 1845 and Manning five years later on 6 April 1850. Each of them in his own way wrestled with the place of tradition and authority in the life of the faith community. They both became cardinals, and they both had a bundle of human foibles. I do like the comparison of the two provided by Manning’s most recent biographer, Robert Gray: ‘Whether one prefers Newman’s whingeing or Manning’s cringing, that is, whether one estimates the higher Newman’s integrity or Manning’s obedience, is a matter of taste. There was no question, however, which attitude found more favour at the Vatican. Newman had his answer to that, too: “I suppose saints have been more roughly treated at Rome than anyone else.’

The last straw for Manning with the established Church of England was when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was required to deliver a definitive and unappealable judgment on the evangelical views of the Reverend George Cornelius Gorham who found himself in conflict with his High Church bishop over the issue of baptism. On 24 January 1850, long after Newman had made his move to what he called ‘the one true fold’, Manning told Samuel Wilberforce: ‘it is indifferent which way the judgment may go. Indeed a decision in favour of the true doctrine of baptism would mislead many. A judgment right in matter cannot heal a wrong in the principle of the Appeal. And the wrong is this: “The Appeal removes the final decision of a question involving both doctrine and discipline out of the Church to another centre and that a Civil Court”.’ Robert Wilberforce was worried that Manning might be headed down the same path as Newman. He suggested that Manning might look offshore for a sympathetic colonial bishop and establish a Free Church, spared any prospect of state intervention. Manning replied, ‘No. Three hundred years ago we left a good ship for a boat; I am not going to leave the boat for a tub.’

Nowadays, many of us see that the ship is full of holes. Could it be that it is sinking? And many, especially the young, wonder about the need for any ship, boat or even a tub? Why not simply believe what one chooses and on one’s own, letting a thousand flowers bloom, floating alone on the open seas, clinging to the occasional piece of driftwood should it be to hand in choppy waters, while happily floating unencumbered when the sea is calm and one is close to port?

Those of us who remain Catholic, and who espouse our faith, our doctrine and our practice as a commendable way of life do so because we just don’t see how we can live a complete life on our own, following our own star unaccompanied by the community of saints who went before and unaccompanied by the community of believers with us now. Gifted with the tradition and with the authority of the Church, we believe that we can be more attentive to all possibilities and more attuned to truth and to the poor. We see the value in being on a ship, and especially a ship with its own museum. A museum can be a very educative place, but you don’t look to the museum as the place from which to steer the ship or as the cabin in which to abide for the course of the voyage.

A year ago, if you’d said to me Cardinal Pell will be in prison, Notre Dame Cathedral will be in flames, and 50 people will lie dead, soaked in their own blood, having been gunned down while attending Friday prayers at their mosque – gunned down by one of our fellow Australians, I don’t think I would have believed you. I’d be asking for proof. And when these things did come to pass, I, like you, was left wondering what room is left in our world, and even in our Church, for the joy, hope and glory of the Easter message which is the key to our Christian faith and the centrepiece of our Catholic mission to the world.

Cardinal’s Pell imprisonment is part of a legal process as we seek truth, justice and compassion for all, especially the victims of sexual abuse, during a time of great uncertainty and change. We wait for the law to do its work. We are faced with two awful options. Perhaps Cardinal Pell is a paedophile who has effectively groomed the Church as an institution all the way to the top. But then again, perhaps he is not a paedophile and it has reached the stage in Australia that 12 of his fellow citizens were prepared to convict him of offences beyond reasonable doubt despite all manner of improbabilities because they don’t trust him or our Church, no matter what we say or do.

In the streets outside Notre Dame, Parisians gathered and sang Ave Maria in the dark as the flames engulfed their cathedral. I had the good fortune to be there a year ago after conducting the wedding of a nephew in Paris. On one of the majestic pillars beside the sanctuary I read the inscription:

‘I was born Jewish. I received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aron. Becoming a Christian by faith and baptism, I remained Jewish as the apostles were.

I have for my patron saints Aron the great priest, St John the Apostle, and Saint Mary Full of Grace.

Named the 139th archbishop of Paris by St John Paul II, I was inducted into this cathedral on 27 February 1981 to exercise all my ministry.

As you pass by, pray for me

Aron Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger

Archbishop of Paris’


Last week the US Supreme Court delivered its decision in deciding that a memorial to the dead of World War I in the shape of a large cross was not in violation of Article 1 of their Constitution. Justice Alito writing for the majority stated:

‘With sufficient time, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices can become embedded features of a community’s landscape and identity. The community may come to value them without necessarily embracing their religious roots. The recent tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris provides a striking example. Although the French Republic rigorously enforces a secular public square, the cathedral remains a symbol of national importance to the religious and nonreligious alike. Notre Dame is fundamentally a place of worship and retains great religious importance, but its meaning has broadened. For many, it is inextricably linked with the very idea of Paris and France. Speaking to the nation shortly after the fire, President Macron said that Notre Dame “is our history, our literature, our imagination. The place where we survived epidemics, wars, liberation. It has been the epicenter of our lives.”’

After the shootings in Christchurch, Jacinda Ardern recalled the story of Hati Mohemmed Daoud Nabi, the 71-year-old man who opened the door at the Al-Noor mosque saying, ‘Hello brother, welcome’. These were the last words he uttered before he breathed his last. Prime Minister Ardern said, ‘Of course he had no idea of the hate that sat behind the door, but his welcome tells us so much — that he was a member of a faith that welcomed all its members, that showed openness, and care. … We open our doors to others and say welcome. And the only thing that must change after the events of Friday, is that this same door must close on all of those who espouse hate and fear.’

At the first Easter, the women stand outside the tomb terrified. The stone has been rolled away. The door between life and death, between heaven and earth, has been opened. The two men in brilliant clothes say to them, ‘Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here; he is risen.’ The women go and tell their story to others including the apostles, ‘but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them’.

To non-believers, our story of ultimate hope, with meaning beyond suffering, and life beyond death seems pure nonsense. We do believe that ultimately there can be truth, justice and compassion for all. We do believe that a cathedral can be the embodiment of faith and culture from century to century, and can be rebuilt to reflect the glory of humanity and the presence of God in our midst. But the cost and energy expended on bricks and mortar need to be matched by our commitment to those who are poor and on the edges, feeling as if they don’t belong inside any grand structures.

We do believe that the tomb can be opened and the door of welcome made inviting for all if we carry with us the belief in the Risen Lord showing openness and care to all and offering forgiveness to those who espouse hate and fear. Paul tells the Romans that Jesus’ life is now with God; ‘and in that way you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus’.

We are people of the resurrection. Our hope is real in the midst of the mess and complexity of our world and of our lives. We are sent forth from the empty tomb remembering what Jesus told his followers in Galilee about being handed over to the power of sinful men, being crucified and rising again on the third day. This is good news not just for us who remain committed to our Church, but for us always, and for everyone in our world. Not everyone needs to be on the ship, or on the same ship. But we do believe that it is good for everyone, including those clinging to the driftwood in turbulent seas and those floating happily in calm waters, that there be a flotilla of ships ferrying those with religious faith differently informed and led by tradition and authority underpinned by respectful dialogue with all.

We go forth from the darkness bringing the light which we continue to see, the light which emboldens us with hope to do as Prime Minister Ardern told her Parliament. Let me recall her words but render them without the understandable tinge of New Zealand nationalism: ‘Our challenge now is to make the very best of us, a daily reality. Because we are not immune to the viruses of hate, of fear, of other. We never have been. But we can be the people who discover the cure. And so to each of us as we go from here, we have work to do, but do not leave the job of combatting hate to others. We each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness.’

Click here for part two of the talk. Or you can listen to the full talk at