Visiting the republic of conscience

Variously described as “the human rights rock star”, “an ethical burr in the nation’s saddle” and most famously by Paul Keating as “that meddling priest”, Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO is Professor of Law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University College of Law and National Centre for Indigenous Studies. He was the founding director of Uniya, the Australian Jesuit Social Justice Centre, and is currently a board member of St Vincent’s Health Australia. A member of the same order as Pope Francis, the Jesuits, Frank Brennan bestrides the fields of law, ethics and theology, and offers a unique perspective on issues troubling the nation.

Visiting the republic of conscience

There is a scene in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Prime Minister (1876) which depicts the two arms of the British government, Liberal and Conservative, setting aside party concerns to “form a ministry of all the talents” in order to address “the nation's bank balance….[and] put the country's trade to rights”. Speaking to Fr Brennan at his community’s home in Canberra, I asked if the vexed issue of the number of refugees seeking asylum could be addressed by such an assembly of talents.


His response was typically uncompromising.


“There's really been a very bad karma about this in Australian politics for about twelve years, so with this election over, now is the time for the Labor Party to get over its unctuous responses to John Howard's Pacific Solution 2001, and the Liberal Party to get over its unctuous responses to Julia Gillard's Malaysia Solution 2012. The score is one-all – or zero-all. The major parties basically have the same objective; they want to stop the 'boats', whatever that means. There's disagreement at the edges as to how it's to be done.


“I think it is high time legislation was brought into the Parliament and that we work towards there being united support by the parties on that. I still have ethical objections but at least let's put all the petty party squabbling behind us. If they then succeed in stopping the boats, as an island nation continent we need to admit that's not the end of the story. In our part of the world there are lots of asylum seekers and if we do manage to stop the boats, one of the dividends that we should pay is to improve the system for processing and protection of asylum seekers in other parts of the region, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia. Even if we were not a migration country, we have obligations to refugees. We've voluntarily signed the Refugee Convention and we should comply with it.”


Fr Brennan takes a less insular approach to the issue of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees than do many members of parliament and commentators. Since the Panel chaired by former chief of Australia’s defence force Angus Houston, reported in August 2012, Fr Brennan believes strongly, “The key is negotiated arrangements between Australia and Malaysia, and Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, and out of that I think you can bring the building blocks of what they call a regional solution.


“The real problem, that no Australian politician admits, is that they always talk about a regional solution to the Australian problem. The Australian problem is pitifully small, compared with the Indonesian problem, or the Malaysian problem, or the Pakistani problem, or the Iranian problem, in terms of hosting people who are asylum-seekers, so if we want to talk realistically about a regional solution, it's got to be a regional solution to the regional problem. We have to take on more responsibility, rather than less.”


Nowhere have the politics of fear been more evident than in the recent Federal election campaign. Despite sound-bite slogans and threats of refugees seizing Australian jobs, Fr Brennan is convinced that people are not nearly as obsessed with ‘stopping the boats’ as the community has been led to believe. He cites the electorate of Indi, where Liberal candidate Sophie Mirabella “kept on about stopping the boats. She wasn't in touch with her electorate and Cathy McGowan, who was, knew that people had local concerns and they weren’t about boats.”


Fr Brennan reminds us that while Australia has both legal and ethical obligations to offer asylum, “There are fewer than 3000 places available for humanitarian cases other than refugee cases, and I think that's pitifully small.”


The reason Fr Brennan cares so much about the plight of these desperate people with little luggage beyond hope is grounded in his Jesuit vocation. That vocation in turn owes much to his being the eldest of seven children of staunchly Catholic and highly educated parents, Gerard and Patricia Brennan. ‘Gerard’ is Sir Gerard Brennan AC KBE and former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia; his son says, “He’s been a great role model for me.”


Young Frank attended Downlands College in Toowoomba, a ministry of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. The College motto is Fortes in Fide - Strong in Faith, and while Fr Frank’s initial inclination to become a Missionary of the Sacred Heart did not bear fruit, he has certainly lived by the motto.


Asked about the choice for priesthood, he says, “I decided to go first to university where I studied politics and law. When I met the Jesuits I found there was an openness in terms of saying 'Well, we don't quite know what we'd do with your law studies but isn't that great? Yes, we'd like to try and do something with it.’


“Also, this was the mid 1970s, the time ten years after the Second Vatican Council when the Jesuits were emphasising very strongly the relationship between Christian faith and social justice. That seemed to be a natural sort of fit to me. I'd always thought, even as a young university student, that you couldn't really do much about justice in society unless you had some sort of handle on law and politics, so that all meshed together pretty well. The Jesuits I met at the time, I liked meeting, and so I saw that as the action of the Holy Spirit.”


After two years novitiate, he was admitted to the bar as a barrister and completed his Masters in Laws.


It’s something of an understatement to say that “In the Jesuits we have a lot of study – two years philosophy, four years theology and then in the middle of that two or three years of work, called regency. I had three years teaching Year 10 Maths at Xavier College, Kew, and then a year at the bar while I was on the staff at Newman College, our university college in Melbourne.” This involvement in the classroom and in the courts captures much about the man. His extraordinary intellect is accompanied by a ‘groundedness’ that ensures that the academic, theological and philosophical are all ordered to the needs of the most vulnerable, those least able to plead their own cause. Fr Brennan is often described as an advocate, and he fits the bill in both the legal and moral senses.


One of the issues he has taken on board, in the footsteps of his father, is Aboriginal self-determination, land rights and specifically the Wik debate of the late 1990s. Fr Brennan recalls an early ‘assignment’ as advisor (extraordinarily, before his ordination as a priest) to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in 1982. “That was the year of the Brisbane Commonwealth Games when there was a lot of focus from the international community on our treatment of Aboriginal Australians.” Since that time, he has frequently written and spoken on the issues arising, always from a standpoint of what the law permits – or could permit – and the gospel – or justice – demands. 


When I suggest that it’s fashionable to be Jesuit these days, there’s a quick response: “Especially if your name’s Frank!” There is a natural solidarity among members of religious orders and the Jesuits are no different, but Fr Brennan puts an in-house cast on the election of Pope Francis in March 2013: “There have been some pretty prominent bishops, even in this country, who have been pretty critical of Jesuits publicly for a long time and that's disheartening, so to have a pope who's unashamedly Jesuit, proud of his Ignatian heritage and says that it can be something of a leaven in the church – that's good news.”


The source of this good news had his own struggles as a very young Jesuit provincial but his confrère reflects positively on the outcome: “He stuffed it up because he was authoritarian and because he didn't consult with people and he thought he knew better because he was the provincial….to give him his due, he went off almost into Coventry for some years but he learnt a lot, spiritually and humanly, and we all now enjoy the fruits.


“One of the things he constantly emphasises is that mercy and forgiveness is the key to the Christian message. He's a sinner and so what he's suggesting to all of us is that we're all sinners but we're all called. In our fairly secular domain in Australia, you do have this sense that unless you're perfect or a martyr, you've got no right to profess ideals. Well, the thing about being Christian is that you know you're grounded in your sinfulness but at the same time you're called to profess the ideals and to get up each time and keep trying.”


The sinfulness of the church has been making headlines for many years now, particularly in our area, and Fr Brennan makes no excuses or false defences. He says, “There are always things that, with the benefit of hindsight, should have been better. In terms of the abuse in the church, I think everyone would now concede, particularly prior to the 1980s, there was no capacity for society to deal with these things properly and that included the church, the police, the courts, the psychologists, the psychiatrists, everyone was in the same boat. What we as church have to admit is that it did take our leaders a long time to start revising things. Anyone who was a church leader prior to 1996 when the new protocols were brought in I think has to admit that they were part of a system that even now we would see to be very flawed.”


Fr Brennan is all in favour of addressing the issues boldly, but admits, “I have some big problems with a Federal Royal Commission. It's so enormous and so diffuse. I had some experience because of work I did with Aboriginal groups during the course of the Aboriginal deaths in custody Royal Commission. If anything, this is bigger and the idea that lawyers hearing evidence provide answers to all sorts of social problems is fanciful. The other problem is with most of the key issues that arise in relation to child abuse where there is an organ of state involved, it's always the state government involved and not the Commonwealth, so trying to get some coherence right across the nation on all of that - the state police forces, the state child welfare bodies - that's a very big ask.


“However, putting those concerns to one side, sure, there's now a Royal Commission. For those of us who are Catholic, there’s a relief in saying we needed the help of the state, we just could not fix it ourselves. Particularly because of the nature of church hierarchy, people couldn't be convinced there was sufficient transparency. So let's trust the processes and I'm sufficiently confident that at the end of the day it will be got right.”


Fr Brennan’s aware of the ongoing Special Inquiry in Newcastle and sees here a paradigm. “Why not wait, get the learnings from these really drilled-down experiences like the Newcastle Inquiry and say, in terms of this Catholic diocese, what could have been improved? Then enunciate principles which could apply to all dioceses, all churches and all organisations working with children? That's one way. What we have now is the scattergun approach – we'll have the most expensive Royal Commission in history, over $400m and that money will be spent without automatically ‘making anyone better’.


This man of the law and of God is nothing if not pragmatic: “If you're working for DoCS (Department of Community Services) I dare say an increasing amount of your time, or that of the person at the desk next to you, is being spent preparing for the Royal Commission rather than attending to the children who are being abused today.”


Perhaps it’s this inability to compromise which led a colleague of mine to say, “Frank Brennan helps me set my moral compass.” Fr Brennan believes “people are looking for a moral compass. There's been a lot of disillusionment as to whether you find a moral compass which is just set by church hierarchy – that's been one of the robust discussions we've had in the church about what do we do when we speak of conscience. I have been a great advocate that anyone, including a Catholic, has to form their conscience, inform that conscience, and to that conscience be true. I'm sorry, I don't care what any bishop or whoever might say if it displaces what is the formed and informed conscience. However, one of the great things about the Catholic tradition is, you say to yourself, if I find myself out of kilter with what is being said by someone in the church hierarchy, then is there something I need to reflect on further, in order to ensure that my conscience is adequately formed and informed, and that being the case, we can move forward. We've been talking about Royal Commissions – very recently we had church leaders saying no, there shouldn't be a Royal Commission. Well, there were lots of independent Catholics saying we think there should be something. Are you saying they should have adjusted their thinking? Of course not. The place of conscience is paramount.”


News reports indicate that Pope Francis is given to making phone calls to unsuspecting members of the community and this Jesuit is as unsuspecting as any. However, should the Pope pick up the phone, Fr Brennan will be “Delighted. I'd probably be like the janitor at Jesuit headquarters who when the pope did call, didn't believe him. I'd be more than happy to have a conversation with him. Although it would break one of my proud boasts that I've never met a Pope.”


On the subject of future directions, Fr Brennan explains that generally, Jesuits don’t become bishops. The idea of Jesuits is that we're available to the universal church. One of the great things is knowing you've got no ambition....It's a wonderful thing to know that you're a priest, that's all you're ever going to be, and you can give fearless advice, you can be pastorally available...” At the suggestion that his fearless commentary along the way might have burnt a bridge or two, he says wryly, “Well, I would think so, in fact I could almost say I'd hope so!”


Fr Brennan’s view on the possibilities for admitting women to the ordained priesthood might well burn another bridge. “For a long time I've said that I don't see any theological objection, by which I mean if a future pope were to say that yes, women can be ordained, I would say he would be theologically correct. At the moment we have a papal teaching that it's not to occur, I respect that, and all we can say is that until it's changed, that's the church position.


“But I think in terms of the scriptural warrant, and in terms of the social reality of the church as an institution – I see it particularly with my nieces, intelligent young women – it's about the only institution left which is more male dominated than an Abbott cabinet! The complementarity of having women at the table – if and when it comes, that will be a graced moment.


“I remember just after Pope John Paul II issued the statement saying we weren't allowed to talk about the ordination of women, I was at dinner with the late Sir Maurice Byers, who had been the Commonwealth solicitor general, a very fine man, a very fine Catholic, a very independent thinker. He said, "Fancy anyone thinking they can say to me that I'm not allowed to talk about something," and it is an indicator, with respect to the late Holy Father, of an over-reaction. When you get an over-reaction, it's usually because the cogency of the arguments is not as good as is being claimed.”


Fr Brennan is fond of quoting the recently deceased Irish poet Seamus Heaney, particularly his poem “From the Republic of Conscience”:


When I landed in the republic of conscience….

You carried your own burden and very soon

your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared….

At their inauguration, public leaders

must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep

to atone for their presumption to hold office…


To listen to Fr Frank Brennan is to land, for a time, in the republic of conscience. 


Fr Frank Brennan will speak in Newcastle on Thursday 21 November. For details, P Mark Lees 4979 1124 or E


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