Being a Priest in the Public Square: The Experience from Down Under

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Frank Brennan, S.J.
Australian Catholic University

Date: February 25, 2015

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We live and work in societies where there is no philosophical agreement about the basis for, or the limits of, state power interfering with personal autonomy. We are members of faith communities and churches without any theological consensus about the relationship between human rights and human dignity. So how can we authentically and usefully contribute to the development of laws and public policies which enhance human flourishing, and perhaps even counsel a social striving for perfection? What can we learn from those in countries with diverse constitutional arrangements (such as the United States and Australia) about how best to resolve disputes about law and policy relating to contested moral questions? Fr. Brennan, who chaired the Australian National Human Rights Consultation in 2009, will reflect on his role in debates in Australia in relation to: whether a bill of rights is desirable; same sex marriage; physician assisted suicide; migration and asylum policy; and indigenous rights.

Speaker Bio

Frank Brennan, S.J.

Frank Brennan, S.J., is the 2014-2015 Gasson Chair at the Boston College Law School, a professor of law at Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the ANU College of Law and National Centre for Indigenous Studies (NCIS). He was the founding director of Uniya, the Australian Jesuit Social Justice Centre, and is presently the advocate in residence for Catholic Health Australia, Catholic Social Services Australia and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. His books on Aboriginal issues include The Wik DebateOne Land One NationSharing the Country and Land Rights Queensland Style. Brennan was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1995 for services to Aboriginal Australians, particularly as an advocate in the areas of law, social justice and reconciliation. In 1998, the National Trust classified him as a Living National Treasure during his involvement in the Wik debate. In 2009, he chaired the Australian National Human Rights Consultation Committee. He holds a B.A. from the University of Queensland, a B.Div from the Melbourne College of Divinity and a L.L.M. from the University of Melbourne.


Event Photos

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Frank Brennan, S.J. speaks about the role of the priest in the public square at the Boisi Center on February 25, 2015.

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Photos by MTS photography

Event Recap

Frank Brennan, S.J., professor of law
 at Australian Catholic University and 
the 2014 - 2015 Gasson Chair at Boston College Law School, discussed his experience as a priest in the public square in Australia at a Boisi Center lunch on February 25. Brennan explained that the relationship between faith and justice
is central to his vocation as a Jesuit.

He spoke about his work on behalf of indigenous persons and asylum seekers, explaining that his focus on these issues is rooted in a vision of the Church as a community that cares for those at the margins of society.

While visiting at Boston College this year, Brennan has been able to complete two books: No Small Change outlines a proposal for constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians; Amplifying that Still Small Voices lays out an agenda for the Church to transform itself.

Asked whether he feels pressure to represent the entire Church in his work on public issues, Brennan explained that because he is a priest and not a bishop, he is able to promote the tradition of the Church without presuming to speak for the Church as a whole. This allows him to speak from the heart rather than present an official Church position, as well as criticize the Church when he deems appropriate.

An audience member pointed out that Australia has many Jesuit-educated Catholics in elected positions. Nonetheless, Brennan explained, this does not mean that Australian policy is more sympathetic to those who are most needy. Across party lines in Australia, for example, there is general consensus that the flow of asylum-seekers needs to be stopped.

Brennan also noted that the Church
has lost much credibility since the sex abuse scandals became public, and that the Church was not currently viewed
in the public square as holding a moral high ground. Still, he expressed hope that the Catholic Church’s values-based tradition and work helping the needy
will ultimately save its credibility. Even if the Church has not always lived up to its mission, Brennan believes that there is a public role to play for a strong faith-based commitment to justice.

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Further Reading

Brennan, Frank. “High Court Fails High Seas Detainees.” Eureka Street 25, no. 2 (February 1, 2015).

Brennan, Frank. “Woman Priests in the Catholic Church-Can We at Least Talk About It?”  Pearls and Irritations. November 19, 2014.

Brennan, Frank. “The G20 Agenda and Pope Francis.” Pearls and Irritations. November 13, 2014.

Brennan, Frank. “Do We Have a Right to Physician-Assisted Suicide?” Eureka Street 24, no. 21 (November 4, 2014).

Brennan, Frank. “Church Legally Liable for pre-1996 Child Sexual Abuse.” Eureka Street 24, no. 20 (October 21, 2014).

Brennan, Frank. “Marriage Equality on the Agenda Again.” Australian Marriage Equality. July 10, 2013.

Brennan, Frank. “How the Catholic Church Can Promote a Better Culture of Life.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation. March 19, 2013.

Brenna, Frank. "ABC Lateline Interview with Father Frank Brennan about Royal Commission," Australian Broadcasting Corporation. December 11, 2012.

Brennan, Frank. Tampering with Asylum: a Universal Humanitarian Problem. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2003.

Brennan, Frank. The Wik debate: Its Impact on Aborigenes, Pastoralists, and Miners. Sydney: UNSW Press, 1998.

Brennan, Frank. Sharing the Country. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1991.

Mathis-Liley, Ben. “Manus Island Asylum Seeker Protests: Australian Facility inUpheaval.” Slate. January 20, 2015.

Whiteman, Hilary. “Australian Asylum Seeker Hunger Strike ‘Not Over’ on Manus Island.” CNN. January 21, 2015.