Contributing to a confident, humble, listening, and questioning Church – pt 2

‘As Church we are able to evoke the sacred, respectfully in the midst of the secular. The challenge for us religious folk today is that we inhabit a public square which is not just neutral.’ 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 second part of the talk, he reflects on the misson of Pope Francis, and the challenges for the Church in engaging with an increasingly hostile secular world. Click here for part one. Or you can listen to the full talk at


  1. Being Proximate, Articulating Principles, and Finding God in the Mess and Complexity

Last month, I was in the Philippines. I was there to teach a one week intensive unit on Catholic social teaching and human rights. I walked into the lecture theatre at the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila and met 50 students. They were from Tanzania, Kenya, South Korea, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Macau, Hong Kong, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji. They had a range of proficiency in English. They had a range of pastoral experiences and a wide range of educational qualifications. What to do? How to teach? How to engage everyone for many hours a day for a full week in this learning tower of Babel?

I realised that Pope Francis had already visited several of their countries – South Korea, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Philippines. I asked people from those countries to share with us their experience of the Pope’s visit to their country. The presentations during the course of the week were very moving. Pope Francis, like all popes, always meets with the big wigs. But he also meets with those who are poorest and most marginal in society. He loves getting close to them. It’s that proximity to the poor that gives his visits such colour and poignancy.

When he went to Myanmar, everyone was waiting to see how he would deal with the military leaders and what he would do or say about the Rohingya – the Muslim refugees who were being displaced across the border in their hundreds of thousands by the military. Pope Francis gave a very measured address to the military leaders speaking about all the right ideals – democracy, peace, justice and human rights. He said that no one should be excluded. But he did not mention the Rohingya by name. His critics, especially those in the western media, said, ‘There you go. He is a leader with feet of clay. He dare not offend the military because he wants to protect his own Christian minority in this largely Buddhist country under military rule.’ He then went next door to Bangladesh. He asked to meet with some of the Rohingya refugees. He openly wept. In company with other religious leaders, including some imams, he prayed with them. His last words in his last public appearance were: ‘The presence of God, today, is also called Rohingya.’ The spirit of God, the spirit of Pentecost, is found in the poorest, in the most marginalised, and in the most complex, messy and irresolvable situations.

On the plane on his way home to Rome, Pope Francis gave a press conference. He told the journalists, ‘I knew that I would be meeting the Rohingya. I knew neither where nor how, but that this was a condition of the journey’. When asked why he did not mention the Rohingya when in Myanmar, he explained, ‘I saw that in the official address [in Myanmar] had I said that word, I would have been slamming the door in someone’s face. But I described the situations, the rights of citizenship, “no one excluded”, to enable myself to go further in private meetings. … I did not have – so to speak – the pleasure of slamming the door in someone’s face, publicly, a condemnation, no. But I had the satisfaction of having a dialogue, of allowing the other person to speak, of saying what I had to say and in this way got the message across.’ The spirit of God alive in us as the Church community allows us to bridge gaps and to speak and listen respectfully even with those with whom we passionately disagree, and for the best of reasons.

When Francis visited the Philippines, he celebrated mass for the largest crowd ever to gather in human history. But he also met with 30,000 young people. At that meeting, a young girl described a life of poverty and deprivation marked by violence and drug abuse in her family and in her neighbourhood. The Filipina woman in our class wept as she told the story of the young girl weeping as she asked the pope: ‘Why did God let this happen to me?’ The pope did not pretend to have an answer. He told her: ‘The nucleus of your question almost doesn’t have a reply.’ He went on to say, ‘Certain realities in life we only see through eyes that are cleansed through our tears.’ On the way home on the plane, journalists quizzed him about his inability to answer the little girl’s question. He replied, ‘We Christians must ask for the grace to weep. Especially wealthy Christians. To weep about injustice and to weep about sins. Because weeping opens you to understand new realities or new dimensions of reality.’ The spirit of God alive in us as the Church community allows us and strengthens us to confront the injustices and sin in our world. Some situations seem so immune to justice, truth and compassion. But the spirit empowers us to hope and to work for justice, truth and compassion in precisely those situations which bring us to tears.

Like the Romans, we hear Paul’s message that we have not received ‘a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!”’ In the spirit of Pentecost, we celebrate that we are all children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – enduring the suffering of injustice, lies and hostility but with the hope that there might be justice, truth and compassion for all. In John’s gospel, Jesus promises that the Father will send us the Holy Spirit both to teach us everything and to remind us of all that he told us.

I am just concluding my term as CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. It has been a great posse from which to view the Church’s national mission. To be an organisation fit for purpose we need to deliver cost effective, dignified services to all whom we serve. We need to be focused on wrestling with the big moral questions from the perspective of the poor, vulnerable and marginalised. We have the tradition and the authority to assist us form staff animated (and not simply weighed down) by wrestling with the big moral questions, knowing that together as Church we are at the cutting edge making a difference.

In the way of Pope Francis, we are able to build a sustainable mission-driven future by being grounded in proximity to those who are poor and marginalised, by participating in policy and advocacy work with competence and compassion, by feeding the soul through relationships, prayer, respectful dialogue across difference, and ritual, and by working creatively, constructively and with an eye to the ‘value add’ with the limited resources and the unique connectedness we have as Church.

  1. Being Ourselves in the Public Square and Making our Full Contribution

 As Church we are able to evoke the sacred, respectfully in the midst of the secular. The challenge for us religious folk today is that we inhabit a public square which is not just neutral. The public square is no longer a place where all are welcome whether or not they have a God. It is no longer simply a ‘no God’ zone; it is increasingly an ‘anti-God’ zone. So how to conduct ourselves? Let’s recall that great example of Pope Francis when he gathered in the Aula with the international corps of journalists after he was elected. He said, ‘I told you I was cordially imparting my blessing. Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!’

I served on the Ruddock Committee set up after the same sex marriage plebiscite. We provided our expert panel report to the Turnbull government in May 2018. The Ruddock committee conceded that in theory there is a major lacuna in the array of anti-discrimination legislation. If you legislate to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age, race, or disability, why not on the basis of religion? Our report was not released until December 2018 by the Morrison government. We recommended both a tweaked tightening of the exemptions for religious bodies in the Sex Discrimination Act and the introduction of a Religious Discrimination Act. The delay in release of the report and the shambolic handling of its publication highlighted the political problem with our recommendations. The Turnbull wing of the Liberal Party favoured the tweaked tightening of the Sexual Discrimination Act provisions but not the introduction of a Religious Discrimination Act. The Morrison wing of the Liberal Party were troubled by the former but attracted to the latter.

I constantly meet well educated, compassionate human rights advocates who view religion as a hangover from a long past era. While conceding that human rights are universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, they basically think that freedom of religion is more trouble than it is worth, a hangover from a past era. They find religious belief and practice marked by notions of tradition, authority, ritual and permanent commitment mystifying and counter-productive. They prize individualism, freedom, personal autonomy and non-discrimination. They not only welcome increasing manifestations of the secular with a strict separation of church and state. They also relish increased secularisation of society with less reliance and respect being shown to the religious inclination which is quarantined to the sole preserve of the individual’s private life – not to be shared in polite company and not to be aired on the public airwaves. Or if aired ever so briefly, to be silently tolerated or publicly declaimed.

Both sides of politics are agreed that it is time to repeal section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act which allows a religious educational institution to discriminate against a student on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy provided they discriminate ‘in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed’. I welcome this bipartisan commitment of the parliament.

Religious schools should not be able to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But religious schools should remain free to teach their doctrine respectfully and reasonably, in season and out of season. And the law should make that perfectly clear. We all need to concede that some religious teachings can be confronting and upsetting. But it is not for the state to rewrite the Bible or the Koran.

Let’s consider an example that has nothing to do with sexuality. Jesus was fearless in his condemnation of wealth: ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Matthew 19:23-24) Church schools have to remain free to teach this doctrine even to the wealthiest children privileged to attend private schools with high fees. This doctrine can be taught respectfully and reasonably even though it is in stark contrast to the lifestyle of many of these students and their families. So too, the teaching of Jesus about marriage and divorce. Yes, there is a large number of students from blended families who have experienced divorce, and there will be an increasing number of students from families with same sex married parents. There’s no doubt that Jesus’ teaching on divorce has been counter-cultural for a long time; so now, his teaching on marriage. A Christian school must be guaranteed the freedom to teach what Jesus taught, respectfully, reasonably and counter-culturally – respectfully because the dignity of all persons must be affirmed, reasonably because a school has a fundamental educational purpose, and counter-culturally because many of the things Jesus taught will never appear in the political manifestos of the Liberal Party or the Labor Party.

Are human rights truly universal, being enjoyed by all those with innate human dignity or are they to be enjoyed only by those attributed human dignity because they are sufficiently like us? And are human rights truly universal, being enjoyed by all at all stages of the life journey, with particular attention to their protection at moments and in situations of greatest vulnerability, or are they to be guaranteed only at those stages of life most likely to permit contribution to the more material aspects of the common good, most particularly, the economic strength of the state?

The American academic Samuel Moyn has observed in his latest book Christian Human Rights ‘human rights today, it is increasingly clear, also offer preprofessional paths for the young engaged in resume building. But unlike Christianity, human rights do not give much of a chance for spiritual transfiguration for the rare authentic seeker of transcendence. ….And one doubts that human rights will ever move true believers to self-sacrifice or even martyrdom, giving themselves as witnesses to the truth of their faith. Secular nationalism found ways to win that level of devotion from its followers, but secular post- and supranationalism so far has not.’ Moyn opines, ‘Human rights activism has transformed the nature of idealism to an impressive extent over a short space of time but has left the world more similar than one might hope.’

  1. Humbly Taking on the Big Issues as Church

Our religious faith lived out and animated by Church participation helps provide us with food for the journey, a sense of true north amidst mess and complexity, and the intellectual and spiritual framework for shaping a human life fulfilled by optimal engagement with the world seeking to shape that world as a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

Visiting an exhibit of Early Rubens paintings last week, I was struck by the way in which Rubens when painting in Antwerp, a bastion of Counter-Reformation Catholic faith in the face of Dutch Protestantism, was fond of displaying sheaths of wheat in his religious paintings suggesting that in the Eucharist the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus was truly present as was the life experience, hopes and dreams of the communicant.


Not only we Catholics, but all people of goodwill, are the richer for living in a world where our Catholic heritage can contribute to the formulation of an encyclical like Laudato Si’ providing some contours for wrestling with climate change, one of the great challenges of the Age.

The one-time New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin who has been writing about science and the environment for more than three decades was one of the experts called to Rome for consultations when the encyclical was being drafted. He is not Catholic and is no papal groupie. When speaking in Australia after release of the encyclical, Revkin particularly emphasised this paragraph from the encyclical (#60):

[W]e need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.

Revkin was impressed at Pope Francis’s willingness to listen attentively to all views and to weigh the evidence. The encyclical states: ‘On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.’(#61)

We all know that climate change is an ongoing challenge for us all. It’s heartening to be part of a Church community whose leaders can provide some moral pointers without presuming to be too prescriptive about solutions. In the lead up to the recent federal election, our own bishops issued a statement saying:

‘Pope Francis appeals to all of us to start “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” and calls for a “new universal solidarity”. Climate change is a complex reality of international import. It is both social and environmental, with solutions that Pope Francis says demand “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature”. We in Australia must play our part. The Pope says: “Civilisation requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilisation! Coming up with an adequate energy ‘mix’ is essential for combating pollution, eliminating poverty and promoting social equality.”’

The Californian bishops have just released a superb document marking the fourth anniversary of Laudato Si’. They don’t just tell governments what they should be doing:

‘For our part, we commit ourselves to fulfilling our calling to lead the Catholic Church and its institutions in life-giving responses to Laudato Si’. We pledge to work with pastoral leaders and Catholic institutions to:

  1. Encourage the faithful to take the St. Francis Pledge—to pray, act, and advocate for solutions to climate disruption—and live out its tenets.
  1. Support clergy, liturgists, musicians, and pastoral leaders to integrate the messages of Laudato Si’ into our life of worship. We commit to offering priest study days and days of recollection to share practical tools, such as homily helps, music, and resources that will regularly help proclaim themes of Laudato Si’.
  1. Examine with (Arch)dioceses their institutional operations to determine the full extent that each can adopt renewable energy, energy efficiency, and water conservation practices.
  1. Explore with (Arch)dioceses opportunities for divestment from fossil fuels, whether through Diocese bank investments, oil leases, etc.
  1. Cooperate with Catholic charities and Catholic health care institutions to undertake environmental health and social initiatives, with special attention to the needs of the poor and excluded.

As each of us discerns how best to live and flourish in our own social context, we look to our Church and its leaders not to provide the definitive answers but to provide us with a moral compass, food for the journey, and truly good company as we chart our course to a more promised land. We thank God for Pope Francis who insists:

‘Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis ….. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and 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. (Amoris Laetitia, #303)’