The meddling priest from Oz

An interview with Australian Jesuit John Brennan, S.J.—lauded as a “national treasure” and an “ethical burr.”

The meddling priest from Oz
Australian Jesuit Frank Brennan on his country’s landmark apology to its Aboriginal peoples—and dilemmas facing Catholic voters in the United States.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Emily Elrod ’05

Frank Brennan, S.J., has earned both the sobriquets “meddling priest” and “Living National Treasure” in his native Australia. He received the Australian Centenary Medal for his work with refugees and on human rights; he has been honored in particular for his work in East Timor. This past year brought him to Santa Clara as the Ignatian Center’s Visiting Presidential Scholar. His books include Acting On Conscience: How can we responsibly mix law, religion and politics? He sat down with Santa Clara Magazine to answer some questions on politics Down Under and here stateside.

The Meddling Priest From Oz

Photo: Charles Barry

Australia’s Apology

SCM: The Rudd government in Australia made a landmark apology to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia this February. What does that mean—and what’s next?
Frank Brennan: There’s no point in just having an apology by your parliament unless it’s part of a more concerted effort by the community at large to put things right and to move forward. There is a genuine sense that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians can say: Yes, there are very regrettable things that have happened in our history, but we are now ready to draw the line on that and to move forward together. Second is, as our prime minister said, embracing the future—a future to be marked by mutual respect and mutual engagement.

I think things in the U.S. are much more complex, particularly in relation to African Americans. In Australia, one reason there was a compelling case for an apology was that up until the 1960s, laws permitted welfare officers to intervene in Aboriginal families where the children were of mixed descent, like with an Aboriginal mother and a white father. Unfortunately, at times welfare officers would have no regard for the consent of the parents and/or the best interests of the child but simply say, “We think it is best that this child be taken from the Aboriginal environment and placed into a mainstream white environment because we believe in a policy of assimilation.”

There are still people alive in Australia today who were removed in those circumstances. Where you have people still alive who have suffered directly from these policies, that possibility of engagement between government and those who have actually suffered directly creates a kernel around which you can create an apology.

Here in the United States: an apology, say, for slavery? Everyone would admit there are no slaves still alive. Yes, here we are many generations on, and, yes, there are things that Americans would deeply regret about what has occurred in terms of the policy of slavery. But the case for apology, as distinct from expression of regret, becomes more tenuous.

In terms of Native Americans, I would see the case slightly differently. With Native Americans, as with Australian Aborigines, there was wholesale disposition of lands and wholesale lack of respect for the self-determination of those societies. The ongoing effects continue to be suffered.

The Catholic Voter

SCM: You’ve said that you believe American Catholics are writing themselves out of certain major debates by arguing among themselves about how Catholic a political candidate is—as seen with John Kerry’s 2004 run for president.
Brennan: Well, for me as a visitor to your wonderful country, it’s not for me to give political solutions. But, having said that, I will, of course, offer gratuitous advice.

I was at Boston College in 2004 as a visiting professor, during the Kerry/Bush election. It did seem to me that some of the bishops had worked the Catholic Church in the United States into a bit of a corner; it seemed that it was expected that a Catholic candidate would be able to tick all the boxes the bishops set down as being Catholic moral teaching, and that these be reflected in all law and social policy—overlooking societal complexities. Then it seemed to me the prospect of a Catholic being selected by a major political party thereafter would be very slight.

The latest statement the U.S. bishops issued on forming consciences for faithful citizenship goes some way toward addressing these sorts of issues: that it is for individual voters and individual legislators to form their own consciences—yes, informed by Catholic social teaching and moral teaching—but that ultimately it has never been the Catholic position that just because we say this is the moral teaching of the Church, that ought to be the law in every society.

SCM: This year, neither presumed major presidential candidate supports all Catholic social teaching. So how do you advise a Catholic to discern the best candidate?
Brennan: Politics is about compromise and having dirty hands. If you are to inform your conscience, you ask yourself who is the best candidate. That has to do with policies, with character, with the political party of which they are a member— particularly here in the American system, where the president gets to make so many appointments of all sorts to all sorts of bodies.

An Ethical Burr

SCM: You’ve had your share of critics over the years.
Brennan: In Australia, where I get involved in the public forum, sometimes politicians think that someone like myself gets too close to the political process. A few years ago, ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating described me as the “meddling priest.” Now, I’m pleased to say that the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who launched my most recent book, Acting On Conscience, described me as “an ethical burr in the nation’s saddle.”

My political critics would say that it’s all very well for the Church to enunciate principles, but really, once it gets beyond principles, you should just leave it to us.

Someone once said, “There’s only one thing worse than people saying bad things about you, and that’s them not talking about you at all.” If you’re going to engage in the public forum, you’re not going to please everyone all of the time. Particularly if you’re unelected, and particularly if you’re a Catholic priest, there’s sure to be trouble.

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