Unfinished Business – the Church in Public Life

Each year the Australian Financial Review gathers about 25 interested observers to assess who are the really powerful in Australian public life, those who could affect the course of debate and set their own agenda. Not one mentioned anyone in the Churches, which is an interesting benchmark about attitudes.

I could name maybe one, Fr. Frank Brennan, or a couple of nuns who have emerged during the whole asylum-seeker debate. But names of people from the institutional Church do not pop to centre-stage when the media are seeking out people for commentary purposes.

Why? Partly due to the increasingly specialist nature of things, so people are sought for their particular expertise. Accordingly, less generalists are sought out and when they are, they’re very good indeed at what they do e.g. Hugh Mackay, Julian Disney, Robert Fitzgerald, Rod Cameron, Judith Brett (Melbourne political scientist and author). Not many Church people are as confident or competent.

Sometimes the good politicians fill that role, e.g. Bob Carr, Peter Beattie, former Senator Bob Collins, (once would have said Gareth Evans!) Nick Greiner, Neville Wran, Bob Hawke and, increasingly, Malcolm Fraser.

The more popular generalists are sought out, like Alan Jones, Ita Buttrose, Ian Kiernan (Cleanup – Australia man), various sports-people on whom wisdom and knowledge are sometimes absurdly conferred e.g. John Eales, Kevin Sheedy (who is not bad in fact) Rod McGeoch, who helped win the Olympics for Australia, etc.

But actually those who are used as sages, as providers of genuine help and clarity where people need it in terms of making sense of their lives, are usually the psychologists, writers and artists. For example people like David Malouf or Inga Clendinnen or Eva Cox, writing in the Boyer Lectures for instance, use language that really can unlock deep and profound road-blocks in contemporary mind-sets and satisfy searchers for ways ahead.

The success of the self-help genre in modern bookstores is testament to the vacuum many sense and the need for some coaching (I’d often say rather misguided).

The good psychologists especially and to a lesser extent the sociologists, are genuinely helpful and have absolutely stepped into the role once played by Church in ensuring that Christ took the starring role in the interplay between humans in their various worldly transactions.

Now, people, like the eminent American psychologist Martin Seligman, are likely to be the type who, after much observational research and apparently value-free scholarship, will bell-the-cat on the mindless pursuit of individualism or autonomy. He will use phrases like “the individual was never a good site for contentment” (with which the Church would be quite comfortable) and somehow, it will ring true; or he will warn that the epidemic of depression emerges from an infatuation with the pursuit of self and self-improvement, to the neglect of relationship with others or some bigger purpose. Professor Anthony Clare, the head of psychiatry at Trinity College in Dublin, a charming Irishman whom the BBC has made a celebrity, will be asked to compile a book on Men or a list on What Makes People Happy? . resulting in a thoroughly good list, again with which the Church would be unlikely to disagree. Stephanie Dowrick, a regular guest on the media, will write a best-seller on the Humane Virtues, which she nominates, offering quite a profound reservoir of thoughts, which do draw on the great Christian tradition. This is immensely popular. The open question we should maybe ponder today is. “Would all these people receive such attention if they were seen as attached to Church?”

On the broader backdrop, what I’d call “the values discussion” appears through the ‘fog’ in the most unlikely places. For example, Stephen Roach, said to be the most consulted economist in the world today, was here in Australia for a conference and was quoted yesterday on ABC Radio’s PM, saying that the shocks to the American way of capitalism from these latest 18 months of revelations had been “profound, very serious . . . and rare”. He did not think a cataclysm beckoned – “we have too many institutional skills and memories to allow that to happen”, he said, but he wanted to stress the “open moments” through which we were living. I detect that too.

The British Government under the forward-thinking Tony Blair (whatever else you think o him) has apparently nominated the values discussion as one that is of growing in importance. The Australian Financial Review devoted two pages, in one of its weekend editions, to an analysis of ‘hope’, headlined: “Creating A Reason To Believe”. It was a very good article exploring the desperate struggle for the aspirational voter that has characterised the last two elections in Australia. The writers really tried to wrestle with this, discerning between aspiration, ambition, pretension and hope, which they defined as “complete assurance and certitude regarding the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something” – synonymous with trust, confidence, dependence. At first, the words appear closely related. In spirit, they are diametrically opposed, the two writers assert. (Refer to Quotable Quotes references at the end of this article).

This is highly impressive, as a snapshot of what the media thinks is palatable to consumers. Sometimes in Catalyst for Renewal, I find people suggesting that the sort of talks and venues that we sponsor are unique, the only place people can hear these things. I feel the need to counter: that this is not so! I am paid to watch public life unfold and in my judgement, it is not a value-free, conscience free zone at all. Quite the reverse. There is a plethora of searching, overtly and covertly underway, with quite elaborate and imaginative forums being devised.

As Basil Mitchell, in his excellent essay on The Christian Conscience in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (OUP 1992) puts provocatively but eloquently: “In particular, the ‘secular thought’ of societies with a long history of Christian influence may sometimes turn out to have been more authentically Christian than what has been officially received as Christian teaching.”

He also adds that a backdrop of the change in tone and conversation in modern public life, has been an appeal to personal experience. This is endorsed as one of the leading themes of the modern period, going back at least to the beginnings of the Romantic Movement, which is hard not to acknowledge as a permanent advance in human awareness.

“The problem for Christian ethics is that its secular manifestations have been increasingly developing in terms of purely individual self-fulfillment and self-expression. Exclusive reliance upon the self could clearly become dangerously subjective”, says Mitchell. I would argue that here, we are entering classical Church territory where it should ideally be contributing much better to the culture. But invariably the tone presented by any Church representative, either of the Catholic or Protestant persuasion, sounds punishing, limiting or fore-closing, in a way that, say, Martin Seligman, did NOT! Why this is so, is a challenging dilemma.

Certainly, on listening to Joe Komonchak this morning, I could fairly be accused of the ‘crimes’ he said traditionalists say are committed by progressives: I am mainly interested in what might broadly be dubbed “cultural and community development” and not sufficiently with internal renewal. I am very interested in this in fact, but would not dream of imposing that on others and I know it would be highly unwise to venture there publicly, within my arena anyway.

So I plead guilty to that particular charge. But, I would add that I have learned, particularly over the last 10 years, how to take-the-best-and-leave-the-rest having stepped out of the mainstream News/Current Affairs culture. I have learned that one can venture into the values area by exploring the territory of rhetoric, spirit and introspection. In this way, one can emerge relatively unscathed.

However, one of the conclusions I have drawn is to realise that the underlying motif is a search for influence rather than power. I would distill it down to this – I see dangers in aiming for that genuine power in public life, though this may be related to my particular temperament, which is not particularly competitive, but life can be most rewarding at that level of influence. Real joy can be a companion, real satisfaction together with real frustration too. Speaking personally, I detect a life-enhancing spirit at work here, which might be connected with Gospel values more than is immediately obvious.

I hope this offers us some guidance as we ponder the unfinished business of the Church in public life.

Quotable Quotes

Karl Rahner, A Rahner Reader ed. Gerald McCooI, DLT 1975: “The Church of the future will be a diaspora community. Christians will be scattered in small group through a vast secular society that will afford them no sociological support for their belief. Unless their diaspora community is to fall back upon itself and become a ghetto, the Christians of the future will have to cultivate a deep personal commitment to their faith and an outgoing attitude toward their world. Thus personal initiative will be supremely important in the diaspora Church. The Church of the future must point its pastoral practice toward the development of personal conviction in her members and the exercise of individual apostolic action by the Christians who are surrounded by a secular culture”.

Richard Major, reporting on cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, speaking in Dallas, June, 2002, reported in The Tablet, June 22: ” Then the cardinal spelled out his view of American civilisation, and the journalists began squirming, stirring in their seats, laughing nervously and snorting, which is the effect truth sometimes has on journalists. “Our culture is secularised Protestantism, self-righteous and decadent at the same time. In such a culture, how can the Church understand itself? How can it, smaller perhaps but faithful, as it is likely to be, understand anew celibacy, or homosexuality, which society does not pretend to understand either? To whom do we really listen?”’

An editorial in The Tablet, regarding, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor’s address to the National conference of Priests: (September 2001): “Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was not the only one taken aback by the extent of reaction to the unscripted remarks he made . . .his off-the-cuff observation that Christianity ‘as a backdrop to people’s lives and moral decision” has now “almost been vanquished’ in Britain was not new. It struck a chord . . .the media welcomed his candour, so too many clergy, who have grown tired of hearing about future dawns and second springs.

The question facing a secular Britain is not whether it can manage without a Christian framework, but how well. In many areas, the verdict is not impressive. And most of the moral principles that young people hold dear—anti-racism, individual rights, care for the planet—have arisen out of a Christian culture even where that is not acknowledge. In other respects however, Britain is showing signs of losing that heritage. Its citizens fear what seems to be an increasing materialism and self-obsessed individualism, more violence, more anxiety, less respect for human life, a readiness to blame others. The paradoxical genius of Christianity is that it understands how obedience to morality can be the key to true freedom.”

Article in the AFR, December 2001, on ‘hope’: Bob Brown: “No-one is marching into the future by themselves. One of the great things about the Greens is that we know we are part of a broader global movement. We are part of something larger than ourselves and I think that is vital to the creation of hope—moving beyond the individual to the communal”.

“Forty years after the beginning of the-cultural revolution, it is not difficult to see why ‘aspirations‘ have become more popular and relevant than hope. The atomisation of society has necessarily led to the elevation of the individual above all other considerations. Hope resounds with implications of inter-dependence, a state viewed with deep suspicion by many.”

(Geraldine Doogue is a renowned journalist and broadcaster; she has presenter of Radio National’s ‘Life Matters’ since 1992. She won a journalism cadetship with the West Australian newspaper and within 10 years carved out a reputation in print, radio and television. She has won two Penguin Awards and a United Nations Media Peace Prize.)