2019 Ann D Clark Lecture: Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

14 September 2019
Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO speaks at the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta Ann D Clark Lecture in 2019. Image: Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta.


Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

2019 Ann D Clark Lecture

“The Universal Mission of the Catholic School”

Evan Theatre, Panthers Penrith, 12 August 2019


During the 1980’s, I often visited the fringe dwelling Aborigines from Mantaka near Kuranda in North Queensland. They were squatted beside the Barron River. They were seeking land rights and new houses. Across the river was a multi-million dollar weekender built by a Melbourne businessman who used to bringing his family in by helicopter. I would often describe this scene to school audiences in Sydney and Melbourne. The students would then ask all sorts of prying questions about the Aborigines, and I was unable to give them satisfactory answers: “Why don’t they build their own houses? Why don’t they move somewhere else? What’s wrong with the businessman having a weekender? Aren’t his taxes paying the Aboriginal welfare bill?” In the end, I would ask just two questions in response, “Which side of the river are you standing on as you ask your questions?” “Can you see that there are just as many unanswerable questions that you can ask form the other side of the river? Mind you, they are very different questions.” A school can be a bridge across the river. The bridge needs lots of pylons.

When chairing the National Human Rights Consultation in 2009, I arrived in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia for a community consultation accompanied by lawyers and secretariat staff from the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department. We were to hold a community consultation on human rights at the race track on the afternoon of 12 May 2009. That morning we learnt that many people were gathered at the local courthouse for the resumed coronial inquiry into the death of Ian Ward who had died of heartstroke in the Kalgoorlie Hospital on 27 January 2008. I thought it best that we visit the court in the morning to get a sense of the human rights issues occupying the local community. I insisted that all members of the secretariat keep out of the public eye. On arrival, we encountered an Aboriginal protest outside the courthouse. There was a bevy of media on hand including the ABC 4 Corners crew.

Walking towards the courthouse, I heard a cry, ‘Hey, Father Frank, over here! You’ve got to support us mob.’ Looking around I saw Ben Taylor, an old Aboriginal friend from Perth whom I had long known in the local Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. He was often accompanying Fr Bryan Tiernan on visits to Aborigines in jail and to Aboriginal families in need around Perth. I was torn. What should I do? I was chairing a national consultation at the request of the Commonwealth Government. I did not want to politicise our presence in town.  And I did not want to end up on television or in the newspapers in relation to a much publicised coronial inquiry I knew little about. But then again, I did not want to abandon Ben and his colleagues in their hour of need. I walked across to the group of grieving relatives who were surrounded by protesters including Ben. They all stood in front of an Aboriginal flag.  Some were crying out for justice for their deceased loved one. Ben was holding a simple placard which read, ‘White Australia has a black history’. I stood with the group, in silence, in solidarity. I would not have been invited to stand in that space but for prior relationships with those in the frame. It is only through relationship that one will be invited. I then accompanied Ben into the back of the courtroom where we heard the appalling testimony about the last hours of Ian Ward, a respected Aboriginal community leader, an artist, and a traditional owner. He had been picked up for drink driving in Laverton on Australia Day. He was denied bail. He was being transported into Kalgoorlie in the back pod of a prison vehicle. Alistair Hope, the State Coroner found:[1]

The deceased was transported in the vehicle from Laverton to Kalgoorlie, a distance of approximately 360 kilometres. The deceased was taken on a journey of approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes on an extremely hot day with the outside temperatures being over 40 degrees centigrade.

The air conditioning for the pod was not working. There was very little ventilation in the pod.  It had no windows and only very limited airflow. The Coroner was to find that ‘the deceased suffered a terrible death while in custody which was wholly unnecessary and avoidable’[2].

After hearing some of this evidence, I and my secretariat proceeded to the racetrack for our community consultation on human rights. It was a tame meeting, carrying none of the pathos, anger or disgust of the morning’s coronial inquiry. Next morning, I flew from Kalgoorlie to Perth. Next to me sat a lady reading her morning newspaper featuring a photo of the Aboriginal protest outside the courthouse. There was an unmistakable 6’4” white male with them – Fr Frank Brennan. I hoped this would not jeopardise our inquiry. I was pleased to have stood in solidarity with the grieving Aboriginal protesters at the request of my friend Ben. What else could I do? What relationships do you want to cultivate as Catholic educators so that you might be invited to take a stand in solidarity?

This is the challenge Pope Francis put to school teachers when meeting with them last year: ‘to stimulate in the pupils the openness to the other as a face, as a person, as a brother and sister to know and respect, with his or her history, merits and defects, riches and limits. The challenge is to cooperate to train young people to be open and interested in the reality that surrounds them, capable of care and tenderness.’

If Twitter was your main source for news, information and opinion, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that Catholic schools are homophobic elitist institutions which deny science and which are run exclusively by men who want to exclude from the classroom any staff member or student who is different in any way when it comes to religious, political or philosophical opinion – institutions which engage in special pleading wanting extra money from the government and seeking special exemptions from the ordinary laws prohibiting discrimination – institutions which don’t care for their children and which don’t appreciate the state insisting on appropriate oversight for the well-being of children. Now we know that such Twitterati would never send their own children to a Catholic school, but some of them also campaign to ensure that in future there be less opportunity for us, their fellow citizens to enjoy freedom of choice when it comes to the education of our own children. You are here tonight because you know this parody is ridiculous and because you believe that there is something of great value – not just for our students and staff, but for all of society in maintaining a system of Catholic schools: schools which are truly Catholic and which are truly educational institutions.

Catholic schools are a key part of Australia’s educational framework. We are the nation’s largest provider of education outside government serving 765,000 students and their families. Australia’s 1750 Catholic schools educate one in five students and employ more than 96,000 people. There are challenges ahead for us. And those challenges come externally and internally as we try to remain true to the universal mission of the Catholic school. I was impressed by your own Bishop Vincent Long’s internal challenge last year when speaking at your System Leaders’ Day:[3]

Catholic schools find their authenticity in the Gospel priorities of inclusion and special concern for young people at risk of being left behind. We are not schools that provide education for Catholics only but Catholic education for all. Inclusive education should be one of the hallmarks of our Diocese. Our schools are called to be open to all who seek the values of our gospel, regardless of religious affiliation or financial capacity. We accept that we cannot fully claim the title ‘Catholic’ without this commitment.

He went on to say:

I dream of a Church that dares to break new ground with a view to being radically faithful to the inclusive vision of Jesus. For he has a habit of challenging ingrained stereotyped attitudes, subverting the tyranny of the majority, breaking social taboos, pushing the boundaries of love and redefining its meaning.

Responding to this sort of episcopal challenge which is true to our tradition and attentive to our contemporary context, we take great inspiration from the late Ann D Clark whom we honour with this annual oration on Catholic education in the Diocese of Parramatta. Thirty years ago, two young Jesuits – Peter Hosking and me – moved from Melbourne to Kings Cross to set up Uniya, the Jesuit social justice centre and the Jesuit Refugee Service for Australia. Our board was chaired by Greg O’Kelly SJ, then principal of St Ignatius College Riverview. Another board member was Ann D Clark. These two Catholic educators were delighted to serve as foundation board members because they believed passionately that the fruits of a good Catholic education were found in the graduate’s commitment to social justice, wanting a better life and a better world for everyone, and not just for one’s own family, class, religious or social group. And Ann always did it with a smile, with joy, with optimism and with hope, with style and with a real professionalism. Peter Hosking is now rector of his old Jesuit School, St Ignatius Athelstone in Adelaide where Greg O’Kelly had been his headmaster. Last week, Peter recalled that Ann Clark as an educator was ‘generous, with a wonderful vision, with a strong sense of justice and how it was to be lived in all Catholic ministry, and with a great generosity to the Jesuits’. So you can understand my delight in being asked to deliver this 2019 Ann D Clark Oration. I speak against the backdrop of much public discussion about religious freedom and discrimination. Some think that by being distinctive, we are discriminatory, or that by being inclusive we are denying our religious identity.

Australia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which specifies the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as first enunciated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the ICCPR is now the main international legal provision protecting freedom of religion or belief. It provides:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

There have been numerous Australian inquiries by parliamentary committees, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Australian Human Rights Commission which have highlighted the need for some further legislative protection of this right at a Commonwealth level. But the appetite for such reform in the legal academy has been slight, and in the past, almost non-existent amongst the leadership of the mainstream churches.

Like all competing or conflicting rights, the right to religious freedom is limited in its scope. There is often a need to balance conflicting rights. For example, Article 26 of the ICCPR recognises the right of all persons to equality and to non-discrimination on certain grounds—including religion. Article 26 provides:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief to the UN Human Rights Council notes:

[T]he jurisprudence of the Human Rights Committee and the regional human rights courts uphold that it is not permissible for individuals or groups to invoke ‘religious liberty’ to perpetuate discrimination against groups in vulnerable situations, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, when it comes to the provision of goods or services in the public sphere.[4]

In the wake of the same sex marriage plebiscite, the Australian challenge has been to strike the right balance between the right to freedom of religion or belief for religious educators and the rights to equality and non-discrimination for teachers and students. If we had an Equality Act, we might consider the need for a Religious Freedom Act. As we have a Sex Discrimination Act which deals with discrimination on the basis of various criteria including sexual orientation, it is desirable that we at least have a Religious Discrimination Act.

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 both 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.

Just before Christmas, there was great agitation in our Parliament about the ongoing capacity of educational authorities to discriminate against gay kids. Senator Penny Wong introduced a bill setting out how this discrimination might be outlawed. I think her approach was basically correct, but I do think there is a need to ensure that we are able to teach our doctrine. So, my one substantive addition to Wong’s bill would be a provision stating:[5]

It is no detriment to a student for a teaching authority to engage in teaching activity if that activity:

(a)  is in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed; and

(b)  is done by, or with the authority of, an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with those doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings.

In this section:

teaching activity means any kind of instruction of a student by a person employed or otherwise engaged by an educational institution.

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 Catholic 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. As an expert panel, the Ruddock review noted that four of the nine Australian jurisdictions (including the Commonwealth) allowed religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation; four did not; and then Tasmania allowed discrimination against new applicants but not against existing students at a school. Not being elected politicians, we did not see it as our role to propose major policy changes, but rather to recommend legislative changes which could be expected to win broad rational support across the political spectrum, honouring the principles of federal-state relations.

The Ruddock committee did not want religious schools discriminating adversely against kids. But at the same time, we wanted religious schools to be able to teach their doctrine reasonably and respectfully. And we wanted religious schools within reason to be able to constitute their own faith environment just as a political party creates its own political environment – by employing staff and attracting volunteers who get the message and want to proclaim it and enact it. It’s not a matter of discriminating against prospective employees with particular attributes; it’s a matter of being free to select staff who espouse the ethos of the educational institution, regardless of their particular attributes. Just as the Greens ought not be required to employ a coal merchant, a Catholic school ought not be required to employ an anti-Catholic activist.

We’ve had a good example of the appropriate exercise of hiring discretion in recent weeks at St Gregory’s College Campbelltown. Twenty-year-old Josiah Folau had been a very popular school captain at the school. In recent times, he has been employed casually in the boarding house at the school, while also doing some tutoring in religious studies. It seems that he has undergone something of a religious conversion, leaving behind his more traditional Catholicism and signing on with ‘The Truth of Jesus Christ Church’ in Kenthurst, his family church which has come to national prominence through his rugby fullback relative Isaiah. Josiah has published various comments which are very disparaging of our Church and practice. For example, he says the mass is ‘a paganistic ritual rooted in heresy, evil and devil worship’, that the Catholic Church the church is ‘false and filled with lies’ and that homosexuality is a sin ‘worthy of death’.

Josiah readily accepted that ongoing casual employment in a Catholic school was not an option for him. He and the school principal had a perfectly civil discussion about the matter. He was assured that St Gregory’s is his alma mater and always will be. Even the Church’s greatest Twitterati critics would accept that the Church is well within its rights as an employer and as an educator declining to maintain or renew a casual contract for services with one like Josiah who now abhors the Church and feels a need not to hide his anti-Catholic crusading light under a bushel.

An altogether different sort of case has arisen in a Jesuit school in the US in recent weeks. On 20 June 2019, the Jesuit President and the Board of Trustees of Jesuit Brebeuf College in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis informed the school community ‘Brebeuf Jesuit has respectfully declined the Archdiocese’s insistence and directive that we dismiss a highly capable and qualified teacher due to the teacher being a spouse within a civilly recognized same-sex marriage’.

The Jesuit Provincial has backed up his Jesuit President and the school board, expressing appreciation of the teacher. He has written:[6]

Consistent with long tradition in our church, Brebeuf Jesuit, with my support as provincial, respects the primacy of an informed conscience of members of its community when making moral decisions. We recognize that at times some people who are associated with our mission make personal moral decisions at variance with Church doctrine; we do our best to help them grow in holiness, all of us being loved sinners who desire to follow Jesus.’

The archbishop has decreed that the school can no longer describe itself as Catholic and has restricted the Jesuits from celebrating mass in the school for special events including the opening of the school year. The archbishop has approved their offering a daily mass at 7.45am but has refused permission for any other eucharistic celebrations. The school president has now informed the school community:[7]

In lieu of celebrating the Mass of the Holy Spirit as a traditional opening-of-the-school-year Mass on Thursday, August 15, our Brebeuf Jesuit community will call upon the blessings of the Holy Spirit in our school community for this academic year by holding a school-wide prayer service during the school day.

So, let’s spare a thought for the Catholics at Jesuit Brebeuf in Indianapolis this Thursday, having been denied permission for a school mass on the feast of the Assumption. Here in Australia, the Ruddock committee specifically recommended laws ensuring ‘that any exceptions for religious schools do not permit discrimination against an existing employee solely on the basis that the employee has entered into a marriage.’[8] We did not think you should be able to sack a teacher just because they entered into a same sex marriage.

The Jesuits have now appealed the archbishop’s decision to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education. Two of the American cardinals on that Congregation are Blasé Cupich and Joseph Tobin – two of Pope Francis’s captain picks. He made them cardinals ahead of a number of the usual suspects in the US, and then he invited them to the recent synod on young people. Tobin was previously the archbishop of Indianapolis so hopefully some good sense will prevail.

The Congregation for Catholic Education has been busy lately publishing its document ‘Male and Female He Created Them – Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education’. The authors insist that listening, reasoning and proposing are distinct steps in any true dialogue. The authors are clearly troubled by the overreach of some gender theorists who envisage ‘a society without sexual differences’. But they do concede, ‘Indeed, it cannot be denied that through the centuries forms of unjust discrimination have been a sad fact of history and have also had an influence within the Church.’ They have a legitimate concern that ‘the generic concept of “non-discrimination” often hides an ideology that denies the difference as well as natural reciprocity that exists between men and women.’ But stepping beyond ideology, we should be able to ensure due respect for the dignity of all persons, regardless of their sex or gender.

Perhaps the Congregation itself has fallen prey to its own ideology when it states:[9]

‘Efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference, such as the ideas of “intersex” or “transgender”, lead to a masculinity or femininity that is ambiguous, even though (in a self-contradictory way), these concepts themselves actually presuppose the very sexual difference that they propose to negate or supersede. This oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks’, and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy.’

I wonder how many intersex or transgender Catholics were engaged in dialogue with the Vatican Congregation before these words were penned. I suspect there were none. We all need to be better listeners in this difficult new space. I commend your Parramatta Diocesan authorities who have issued sensitive and sensible guidelines for supporting students with gender dysphoria. These guidelines are helpful not only for that handful of students and their parents but also for the other students in the school and the staff. The guidelines note: ‘Students may be curious, or confused if one of their peers wishes to express their gender identity other than in conformity with prevailing gender norms, or they disclose that they identify as transgender. They should be reassured that the student deserves the same respect and courtesy that they would extend to any other person.’[10] When I was a school boy, gender dysphoria was unknown. Just last week it was reported that the first national figures made available from the major hospitals in four states indicate that 2415 children were referred for gender treatment between 2014 and 2018, with a 41 per cent increase in Victoria. ‘Puberty blocker’ drugs are now being administered on girls as young as nine and boys as young as 11[11]. Hopefully parents will not be approving puberty blocking drugs for 10-year-olds without the clearest psychiatric and medical advice. As we come to terms with this increasing phenomenon, we will of course need to have access to the best medicine and science, and have an eye to the rights and interests of all staff and students. You will have noted the controversy this past week over Cricket Australia’s announcement. Some people think that these new arrangements will cause significant problems in women’s competitive sports. The Chief Executive of Cricket Australia is satisfied that they have struck ‘a fair balance between the opportunity to participate and ensuring fair competition for all cricketers, including those who are transgender or gender-diverse’[12]. One angry letter writer responding to Cricket Australia wrote: ‘After all the time, money and effort that has gone into promoting women’s sport and just as the general public has begun to appreciate and watch these talented sportswomen, it is all being undone by transgenderism. It is patently unfair to allow a person who identifies as a woman, and to all intents and purposes is male, with male strength, size and testosterone levels to compete against physically smaller, weaker women. That is why we have women’s sport.’[13]

Putting to one side the ideological content in the Vatican document, I commend the Congregation for Education in their conclusions that:[14]

‘Every school should therefore make sure it is an environment of trust, calmness and openness, particularly where there are cases that require time and careful discernment. It is essential that the right conditions are created to provide a patient and understanding ear, far removed from any unjust discrimination.’[15]

We are citizens of a pluralistic democratic society in which the law does not necessarily reflect our Church’s teaching on all matters. Think only of last week’s debate in the New South Wales Parliament on the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill carried by 59-31. Gone are the days when Catholics are found on only one side of these debates. Three years ago, when abortion law reform was being debated in Queensland, I participated fairly publicly in the debate with the result that the local Catholic paper went to town on Fr Brennan for his errant views. In part I replied:[16]

The Letters page of The Catholic Leader for the Feast of St Ignatius (31 July 2016, p. 22) includes five letters critical of my recent evidence to the Queensland Parliament’s Inquiry into the Abortion Law Reform (Women’s Right to Choose) Amendment Bill and into Laws Governing Termination of Pregnancy.

As I understand the matter, the Queensland parliamentary committee is considering a proposal to legalise all abortions, and one of their main options is to replicate the new Victorian law which allows the ready abortion even of a viable foetus, and denies a doctor the right conscientiously to refuse to refer a woman for such an abortion.

In Evangelium Vitae, St John Paul II wrote in 1995: ‘[W]hen it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.’ (#73)

In accordance with Evangelium Vitae, I made my moral, doctrinal position on abortion perfectly clear. I told the parliamentary committee: ‘I am a Catholic priest; I have a purely orthodox view of the Catholic Church – it is the deliberate killing of a human being.’ But I then went on to say, ‘That does not answer for me the question, and therefore I presume it does not answer for you, what the law ought to be?’ I then outlined some of the complexities of designing a workable, enforceable abortion law acceptable to elected politicians in a pluralist, democratic society in which most citizens (including many Catholics) do not think that Catholic orthodoxy should necessarily determine law and social policy. I referred the committee to three of my books published in 1998, 2007 and 2015 in which I had addressed this issue. No bishop or moral theologian has publicly impugned those writings in the past.

My critics in your letters column would seem to think that nothing more need be said or done by a conscientious Catholic other than to say that all abortions are wrong. Having failed to win the day on ‘the right to life’ v ‘the right to choose’ debate, my critics would do and say nothing to try and moderate any new laws which are aimed at maximising choice without giving any legal protection whatever to the foetus, even if the child now be viable outside the womb of the mother who no longer wants to carry the child.

I proceeded to argue strongly that if the elected parliamentarians of Queensland were to legislate to legalise abortion, making it freely available to women, then at the very least they should ensure that the law protected the life of the viable foetus and that the law protected the right of the doctor conscientiously to refuse to participate in any way in any abortion.

….  I wish all your readers well as we wrestle with the moral and political challenges of an abortion law which is more respectful of human life than what has been proposed by Mr Rob Pyne in his bill which would permit untrammeled abortion on demand. Together let’s pray: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts.’ (Psalm 139:23)

We Catholics need to get better at expressing our public disagreements with each other, without so readily resorting to ecclesiastical authority to determine disputes about preferred civil law or public policy and without impugning the moral integrity of those with whom we disagree. In this space there is a lot of work for Catholic educators to form graduates with the capacity for informed and respectful dialogue.

Our civil law of marriage has not matched the contours of our sacrament of marriage for a very long time. Most civil marriages contracted in Australia are not sacramental marriages celebrated or even recognised by the Catholic Church. Most marriages nowadays in Australia are performed by civil celebrants. Even Catholics are using civil celebrants more often.

It is of course essential that any law on the recognition of same sex marriage in no way interfere with the Church’s role in performing or defining sacramental marriages. The civil institution of marriage already differs substantially from a sacramental marriage. For example, a civil marriage is terminable on one year’s notice by one of the parties, and is available to all citizens regardless of their religion or previous marital status. I recognise the right of Catholic voters and politicians to vote according to their conscience when deciding whether to expand the definition of civil marriage to include an exclusive commitment by two persons of the same sex. An extension of the international law of human rights to incorporate same sex marriage cannot be categorized as an unwarranted interference with the universality of human rights. For example, were Article 23.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be amended or re-interpreted to provide, ‘The right of persons of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognized’, advocates for traditional marriage might rightly claim that the international law of human rights no longer adhered to their notion of marriage (and they might even argue that this might have some adverse social consequences), but they could not credibly claim that such a change would contribute to ‘a deterioration of the universality of human rights’ or that it would ‘discredit and undermine the very concept of human rights’. There will be many who claim that such a change will further contribute to the universality of human rights, enhancing the concept of human rights. The risk for both sides is that the rhetoric of human rights will be used to disguise the arguments about the common good and the public interest which need to underpin any expansion of human rights and any contest between conflicting rights. Any expansion of the right to marriage requires a consideration also of the rights of children, both those children who are already being raised and nurtured by same sex couples and those children likely to be created in the future. All factors and the rights of all persons (including children) need to be considered when contemplating an expansion of the right to marriage. Such an expansion, after due consideration of all other factors and rights, would not undermine the universality of human rights, but would rather enhance that universality. Let’s not be naïve. Human rights is an ideological battle ground in international civil society. But the debates about the limits and development of rights will be determined and won not by invoking rights as ‘trumps’ but by ascribing rights to those entitlements which pay due regard to all conflicting claims.

When seeking to balance conflicting rights, there may be a case for permitting a fuller expression of religious liberty and preferences when alternatives exist elsewhere in society for persons seeking non-discriminatory opportunities or services. For example, the UK now insists that all registered adoption agencies, including Catholic ones, provide a non-discriminatory service such that adoption would be as readily available to a same sex couple as to a man and woman wanting to adopt a child into their family. In my opinion, it would be no interference with the rights or dignity of gay and lesbian couples if some religious adoption agencies acting on their religious beliefs gave preference to married heterosexual couples when determining adoptive parents for a child, provided always that the agency was acting in the best interests of the child. There would still be a range of non-Church adoption agencies providing services to all couples, including gay and lesbian couples. It is legislative overreach for the state to insist on uniform non-discrimination for all adoption agencies. Also, if all schools or even the majority of schools were faith-based, there would be a stronger case for anti-discrimination provisions applying more broadly in employment situations for teachers.

During the plebiscite campaign preceding the legislation recognising same sex marriage, I received a letter from a bishop relaying a complaint from someone who objected to my stating publicly that I would vote in favour of civil recognition of same sex marriage. The bishop wrote, ‘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 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 appreciate that some of our bishops remain convinced that no Catholic in good faith could vote in favour of the civil recognition of same sex marriages. These bishops need to concede that a majority of Catholics in good faith who did vote voted yes. The yes vote came in at 62%. Catholics voted slightly more in favour than the general population. 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. When asked by David Speers on Sky News how Catholics could vote, Coleridge answered at some length:

Catholics we’re a big mob. Anyone who thinks we’re monolithic does not know the Catholic Church. It’s like herding cats. Catholics are going to vote “yes”, some are going to vote “no”, some are not going to vote at all. Some are going to vote “yes” for one reason, some for another; ditto with “no”. 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”. And we’ve seen some awful stuff on both sides of the debate, or all sides of the debate, because there aren’t just two sides. 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.[17]

No matter how one might vote on such an issue, we all need to accept that the civil law of marriage can 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 took heart from the pastoral letter of Bishop Vincent Long who wrote:[18]

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.

The civil recognition of same sex marriage provides new challenges for Catholic educators wanting to embrace new horizons for justice and solidarity, working 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 teach our doctrine, including our doctrine on 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 living 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.

If religious freedom is to be better protected in future, it is necessary that religious citizens develop a more coherent position on the utility of comprehensive national human rights legislation being enacted and implemented consistent with the complexities in federal-state relations. It is also necessary that religious citizens and their leaders show more regard for the right to equality and equal treatment of others, especially those who have suffered adverse discrimination from religious people and organisations in the past. And it’s necessary that the human rights academy accord universality and indivisibility to all human rights including the fundamental right to freedom of religion. Some rights are trumpeted by the mainstream media and the academy; others are not. Freedom of religion might not be fashionable, but that’s all the more reason for it to be protected by legislation with judicial teeth. It’s time to advocate and demonstrate that all rights including freedom of religion and the right to equality of treatment are universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.

When Pope Francis met with the Vatican Curial officials before Christmas two years ago, 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”.[19]

Imagining new horizons for justice and solidarity, let’s ask ourselves: 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?

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,[a]

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

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. Let’s recommit to the universal mission of the Catholic school here in the Diocese of Parramatta. Like Ann Clark, let’s do it with joy, hope, humour, passion, good will and a touch of style.



[1] Western Australia Coroner, Inquest into the Death of Ian Ward at

<http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/special_eds/20090615/ward/ward_finding.pdf>, 3-4.  Accessed 3 December 2014

[2] Western Australia Coroner, Inquest into the Death of Ian Ward, 5

[3] Vincent Long, ‘Forming Students and Communities for the Regin of God’, CEDP System Leaders Day, 25 January 2018

[4] Shaheed A (2018) Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. UN Doc A/HRC/34/50 (28 February 2018) [40].

[5] This could be added as s. 21(5) of the Sex Discrimination Act

[6] Statement of Provincial Brian Paulson, SJ, Concerning Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, June 20, 2019

[7] Update from Brebeuf Jesuit President, Fr. Bill Verbryke, S.J., 4 August 2019

[8] Recommendation 6, Religious Freedom Review, 2018

[9] Congregation for Catholic Education, ‘Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education’, 2019, #25

[10] CEDP Guidelines for Supporting Students with Gender Dysphoria, 2 February 2019, p. 5

[11] Bernard Lane, ‘Warnings over surge in youth transgender cases, The Australian, 9 August 2019

[12] Kevin Roberts, ‘A game that judges and excludes? It’s not cricket, and not Australian either’, Weekend Australian, 10-11 August 2019.

[13] Iain Rae, Letter to editor, Weekend Australian, 10-11 August 2019

[14] ‘Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education’, 2019,#56

[15] Ibid

[16] The Catholic Leader, 7 August 2016

[17] David Speers, Skynews, 28 September 2017

[18] Vincent Long, Pastoral Letter, 13 September 2017

[19] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2017/december/documents/papa-francesco_20171221_curia-romana.html


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