Despatches of conscience from the meddling priest

Fearless advocate

Nothing is spared the Frank Brennan purview in his latest book. His Church's struggle to come to terms with contemporary realities, matters of life, death and love are all held to the gold standard of dignity, says Paul Bongiorno.

- Eureka Street

This book, Amplifying That Still, Small Voice, is a testament to the Brennan mission.

In the introduction, Irish poet Seamus Heaney on the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights speaks of the Declaration as a 'still, small voice' — the equivalent of a gold standard in the monetary system, reminding nations of the obligations they have signed up to.

The "still small voice" is certainly amplified by Fr Brennan with courage and conviction. He is not afraid to hold his Church, his society, and indeed the community of nations, up to the gold standard of the dignity and freedom of the individual.

But his baseline, not surprisingly as a Jesuit priest, is his belief that God is to be found in all things and we are called to discern this presence in the life of every person. This faith dimension affirms that at its base, reality is founded on, rooted in God.

This leads him to be, as Paul Keating lamented during the Wik native title negotiations, "a meddlesome priest."

This God is not an absent God but found in every human person.

Frank has found a champion in another Jesuit called Frank: The Pope who is quoted in the book saying: A good Catholic doesn't meddle in politics. That's not true. That is not a good path. A good Catholic meddles in politics offering the best of himself so that those who govern can govern.

Pope Francis goes on to say: 'and offer prayers.' And heaven help us, those who govern this nation could do with plenty.

In discussing Australia's asylum seeker policies, Frank laments the Government's deaf ear to calls from the churches, his own included, for a greater measure of compassion and a better way of dealing with the issue of boat people. Frank wryly comments: "If only the Abbott Government with its disproportionate number of Jesuit alumni cabinet ministers could listen." 

Here he suggests a better way forward with a more genuine engagement with the region.

And for those who think Australia is in breach of its human rights obligations, with his lawyer's hat on, he has a sobering analysis of the limits of the international covenants. Narrow legalism won't save our humanity; meddlesome priests and people of good conscience might.

He asks in what circumstances are we entitled to be cruel to the person on our doorstep, the boat person who has risked their life to be here, so we can be kind to the person defined as being in greater need on the other side of the world. Taking my cue from this, why should hypothetical boat people have more rights that those we have locked up and treat so cruelly, so abominably on Manus and Nauru?

And in a week where the President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, has warned that expansion of ministerial powers is a growing threat to democracy, the chapter on pursuing human rights is illuminating.

This story is adapted from a speech to launch the book in Canberra earlier this month.

FULL STORY Meddling priest's witness to the primacy of conscience

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