ALLAN PATIENCE. Anthony Fisher’s message of ill will at Christmas tide

The archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher OP is the nominal head of the Australian Catholic Church – despite the fact that Melbourne is the largest and arguably the most intellectually lively diocese in the country. Fisher is seen by many as an authoritative spokesperson for his brother bishops, priests and religious. So, his 2018 Christmas message offered him a golden opportunity to reach out inclusively, positively and generously to his fellow Catholics and to all people of good will across the wide brown land. In the event, he managed to disappoint, even anger, just about everybody except for the small reactionary clique gathered around him and around like-minded cronies in the hierarchy.  

If ever the Australian Catholic community needed a hopeful Christmas message in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse, it was in the immediate run-up to Christmas 2018. Everyone knows that morale in the Church is at a devastatingly low ebb. Many among the Catholic laity are shell-shocked, demoralised, deeply hurt, even alienated. For a large majority of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Church leaders have been found seriously wanting. Whatever moral authority the Church had in the past is now fast withering on the vine. The Catholic lay faithful (a dwindling lot) are struggling through very dark times.

Is it not therefore the prime responsibility of ordained leaders in the Church to exercise the most sensitive pastoral care to those struggling, against huge odds, to remain true to their faith? In addition to being treated with respect and compassionate pastoral care by the hierarchy, lay Catholics today deserve immense humility from their bishops, priests and religious.

If we judge him by his 2018 Christmas homily, Anthony Fisher appears either blindly unaware, or arrogantly dismissive of the laity’s anguish and increasing alienation from purblind clerics who persist in ignoring the crisis facing the contemporary Church.

No doubt Fisher is reeling from the double whammy that hit him and his ilk over this past year.

First there was the excoriating experience of the Royal Commission and its recommendations. Fisher used his homily to rail against the recommendation that the seal of the confessional should be unlawful when the protection of children is a matter of concern. Admittedly this is a difficult issue, but why be so confronting about it when what is needed is cautious thought and sensitive diplomacy? The old adage about speaking softly to hear soft echoes appears lost on Archbishop Fisher.

Second was the fact that a very substantial majority of Australians – many of them Catholics, including priests and religious – voted Yes in the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Fisher was one of the theological cheer leaders for the alt-right in the Australian parliament who imposed the plebiscite on the Australian people, despite the fact that it was a devious attempt to pervert the will of the people. It certainly blew up in the faces of those surly reactionaries!

How should a wise leader respond to this double whammy? This is the question Fisher could have asked himself before composing his homily. As it turned out, his homily was one long whinge. He started out by complaining about “hard-edged secularism.” By secularism he probably means a society in which the Church is not ipso facto the moral arbiter on most if not all things. He needs to face up to the fact that this has been the case for many years now.

Today, the Church is only one voice among many. It is not a privileged voice for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. Many of the bad reasons can be found in the unnecessary war Church authorities have waged for at least 200 years against the encroachments of modern secular society. Their mistake was to go to war rather than to find an accommodation that could benefit both sides.

The blinkered view of the anti-secularists is that the Church’s rightful authority has been undermined by secular values (in particular, democracy) and secular knowledge (in particular, science). The Church’s sustained fight against modernising its own systems of governance, its own understandings of the gospel, and its Canute-like defence of its undeserved privileges means that modern thought across a vast range of ethical, philosophical and cultural matters long ago surpassed the sclerotic orthodoxies of the Church.

Fisher proceeded in his homily to defend “religious freedom” which he claims (against substantial evidence) is under threat in contemporary Australia. By this he is apparently saying that Catholic schools and other institutions should have legal protection to discriminate against gay teachers and students – presumably by excluding them. If this was the purpose of his homily, it is unduly defensive. It is also the very antithesis of the “love and service” that he claims for the “Christian message of hope and healing.”

What would a good homily look like in these circumstances?

First, a much humbler approach is needed. Fisher should have acknowledged (as he must do for the rest of his preaching days) the appalling moral mess the Church is now floundering in because of the failed leadership of bishops and others not unlike him. He should have begun by asking the St Mary’s congregation for their forgiveness. No more clericalist arrogance, please! More humility, please!

Second, he could have lifted the self-regarding demand for special treatment for the Church out of a self-serving and narrow defence of religious freedom by outlining a theologically-informed argument for a charter of human rights and freedoms for Australia, to be legislated by the federal parliament.

Of course, this would be anathema to Catholic politicians such as Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews. But it is precisely for this reason that the Catholic Church has to be a Church that it is not in ghoulish league with a reactionary political rump (as it was in the bad old days of the DLP). The hierarchy needs urgently to be in vibrant communion with the faithful laity who today are like the man on the road to Jericho who fell victim to thieves, with the bishops being the pious lot passing by on the other side. Is there a good Samaritan who will come to the aid of the faithful laity? If Fisher’s homily contains the answer, then clearly it is No.

Australian Catholics don’t deserve to have bishops imposed on them with narrow-minded and ill-considered views on issues like religious freedom. If only the laity could advise the Pope meaningfully about the bishops they need. That would help to overcome the yawning disconnect between the laity and their leaders – arguably the greatest peril confronting the Church today.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic.

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22 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. Anthony Fisher’s message of ill will at Christmas tide

  1. Marianne Wijsman says:

    A fantastic article also the comments below it. Has anyone sent this through to the leader of the church Pope Francis?

  2. Margaret Knowlden says:

    May I please have permission to reprint your excellent article in ARCVoice, the quarterly newsletter of Australian Reforming Catholics? It is a not-for-profit organisation.

    Thank you

  3. Ed Cory says:

    In such men as this we the laity place our hopes for change through the Plenary Council. Woe is us!

    But Fisher has (not for the first time) done us a favour – as my mother used to say “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt”. Is anyone listening?

    Thanks Allan.

  4. Denis Nickle says:

    Whatever about the content of this essay (and I am in general agreement with its tenor), isn’t it time to stop perpetuating the myth that the Archbishop of Sydney is “the nominal head of the Australian Catholic Church”?
    There is no justification whatever for this canard. It has probably developed because said Archbishopric is the most senior agewise, its occupant has often worn cardinal robes and for the most part he has been the only one in Australia. This “prestige” means zilch as far as any headship is concerned. George Pell may have thought he was top dog but his episcopal brothers repeatedly and conspicuously failed to elect him as the chair/president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
    Assertions such as the one which opens this commendable piece merely feed the public misconception – and possible encourage the present Sydney incumbent in a misunderstanding of his status.

    • Allan Patience says:

      Your point is well taken. However, as I note in the preface to my post: “Fisher is seen by many as an authoritative spokesperson for his brother bishops, priests and religious.” Like it or not, that’s a fact. That myth has been perpetuated first and foremost by the Vatican. When it has deigned to place a cardinal’s hat on an Australian bishop it has nearly always been on a Sydney archbishop. I think it has once done so on a Melbourne archbishop (Knox) when there was already another cardinal in Sydney – although I stand to be corrected. You’re right to note that Pell arrogated a leadership role for himself that his brother bishops were less than enthusiastic to recognise.

  5. Peter Johnstone says:

    Interesting that Archbishop Fisher has now sought to modify his initial statement in the Guardian quoted above :
    “We’ve witnessed moves to make the celebration of the sacrament of confession illegal”,
    to some more carefully drafted but still misleading language on his diocesan website:
    “There have been moves to undermine the Sacrament of Confession.”
    That’s still ‘fake news’, and irresponsible for a Church leader from whom we might reasonably expect the truth. Fact: the Royal Commission recommended “the introduction of a new criminal offence of failure to report, targeted at child sexual abuse in an institutional context (recommendation 33)”. The recommendation affects the sacrament of confession only incidentally in the apparently rare case of a paedophile at large, a danger to children, seeking the comfort of absolution. That does not “undermine the Sacrament of Confession”. Instead of playing the victim and claiming non-existent religious prejudice, the archbishop should address the real issue and immediately instruct all confessors to make absolution in these rare and dangerous circumstances dependent on the penitent reporting to the police, a canonically acceptable approach that might earn some secular respect.

    • Kieran Tapsell says:

      In another Trump copycat, Fisher blames someone else, secular society, and not the Church when the solution to the problem of sexually abusive priests using confession as some kind of guilt salve is in changing canon law. Canon 982 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law provides that any penitent who confesses to falsely accusing a priest of soliciting sex in the confessional is to be refused absolution until “the person has first formally retracted the false denunciation and is prepared to repair damages if there are any.” Presumably that means paying the falsely accused priest defamation damages and the cost of defending himself. If a priest’s reputation is a good enough reason for refusing absolution, then surely the safety of children is an even better reason. The 1982 Code is dripping with the clericalism that Pope Francis continually condemns and does nothing about. The Royal Commission’s Final Report lists them: the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse (required for clergy, but not for lay people) the limitation period for dismissing abuse priests (which did not exist before 1983) the Catch 22 defence of imputability (a priest cannot be dismissed for paedophilia because he’s a paedophile), the requirement to try and cure the priest before putting him on a canonical trial. Canon 982 is just another example. A more honest approach would be for Fisher to publicly call on Pope Francis to do something about the Royal Commission’s recommendations for changes to canon law.

    • Allan Patience says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you.

  6. Peter Bowron says:

    I remember at the time of World Youth Day in Sydney, Anthony Fisher was the an assistant bishop to George Pell. Several parents of abused children petitioned for an audience for the visiting Benedict. Fisher, in typically arrogant fashion, told them they just needed to get over it. I see he is yet to grow up.

    There are several cogent arguments for removing celibacy and allowing marriage for priests and bishops. One is that there would at least be the possibility that they understand the blessing of sexuality (because they are either blind to it or brutally pervert it, as the Royal Commission has shown.) A second is they would have the possibility of the life changing process called parenthood. A young couple we are friends with are expecting their first child next month. I told the father to be (who in my opinion will be a terrific dad,) that nothing he had done so far in life will change him so radically as the birth of their child, not even his marriage. Were priests and bishops up to the task of comforting, feeding and changing the nappies of crying children at 3am, they might learn more about service and humility than a seminary will ever teach them.

  7. maggie galley says:

    Thanks Alan love your response .. …if a leader does not demonstrate humility then in my books they are not leaders. Archbishop oozes with arrogance and priviledge thank God civil society can recognise crime and insist on accountability the church owes a debt of gratitude to civil society. i doubt that will ever be acknowledged certainly not by the current Australian Catholic leadership…will plenary 2020 be the catalyst for true church renewal we live in hope

  8. carey burke says:

    Archbishop Fisher, like his immediate predecessor, too easily treats the pulpit as a podium to vent his latest digest of social ills and church travails.

    Alan Patience has rightly called him to task, and so does one of the primary teaching authorities of the Catholic Church – The formal Liturgy set for celebration throughout the Roman Rite. The Office of Readings placed a clear agenda before anyone who would be a preacher on this day.

    Archbishop’s Fisher ignores the injunction of Isaiah to see the Christmas moment as a time when enmities are set aside – a time when “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb”

    He further ignores the insights of Pope St Leo the Great when he says “This is no season for sadness, this, the birthday of Life – the Life which annihilates the fear of death, and engenders joy, promising as it does, immortality, Nobody is an outsider to this happiness….”

  9. James Lewis says:

    Henry VIII had them sussed out.

  10. Joan Seymour says:

    My long-time complaint against Archbishop Fisher – and his ilk – is their failure as teachers. Their structural responsibility in the Church is effective teaching, specifically the proclamation of the Gospel and its application in the day-by-day situations of our daily lives. Yet they seem unable to break open the teachings of the Church according to the Catechism, never mind the Gospel. What average Catholic knows the teaching of the Church on homosexuality? Most believe it’s what the media say it is, and responsibility for that is squarely on the shoulders of our Bishops. We don’t know the full teaching on divorce and remarriage, either. Now we have Fisher deliberately misrepresenting the situation re the Sacrament of Confession. He can’t -or won’t – make plain the full teaching of the Church, and he can’t – or won’t – comment honestly on the actions of the State. How is he qualified to lead the Church, lacking humility, pastoral sensitivity or the ability to preach the whole truth of the Gospel? Oh, wait, he hasn’t sexually abused anyone. Is that his sole qualification?

  11. Lynne Newington says:

    Caustic I know “If only the laity could advise the Pope meaningfully about the bishops they need”….
    If the Holy Spirit isn’t quickening him what hope do the laity have?

  12. Kieran Tapsell says:

    Archbishop Fisher in his Christmas message said: “We’ve witnessed moves to make the celebration of the sacrament of confession illegal.” Oh, where? By which State or Territory? So far as I can see, the only “moves” were for some States to adopt the recommendation of the Royal Commission that the seal of confession should not be a defense to a crime of failing to report child sexual abuse. That’s not making the sacrament of confession illegal. That’s the kind of exaggeration one might expect from an Archbishop Trump.

  13. Steve Jordan says:

    As one of his listeners counselled catholic cleric Dr Rumble of Rumble’s Radio Replies on Sydney radio some decades ago now,

    “More humble and less grumble from Rumble”.

  14. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    With the death of Sydney Jesuit Paul Coleman SJ the RCC (Rom’n Cath’c Ch.) lost a fine soul of the kind that Alan Patience pleads – for in this piece – one whose humanity made him approachable and loved by many. It’s hard to think of too many Others.
    A/b Fisher is palpably not the man to lead even the ‘lay faithful’ (let alone anybody else) to a reconciliation of ethics, morals and ‘faith’ in these times when ‘faith’ has morphed into a corporate governance scandal and a political football apparently-successfully kicked-around by Tony Abbott, of indifferent memory.
    It is instructive to read Alan Patience’s scrupulous exegeses of the RCC in Australia in these, at last, momentous times – but it is more revealing of Australian History than of the RCC; the former is still in unfolding formation. The latter is congealed in a quagmire of obstruse internal politics and misdirected loyalty. As befits a teacher – AP is guiding the laity to think for themselves: in the RCC in Australia – this = Revolution.

  15. Peter Johnstone says:

    Is it OK for bishops to misrepresent the facts for blatant political purposes? Abp Fisher was quoted (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/dec/23/catholic-archbishop-australia-secularism-threats-to-religious-freedoms?fbclid=IwAR3WS-2HkMRSPiU4uW4q8VwFrELCbwy9UhMVQhQz1Y8yPEnaIxMbVM7DuPU )
    as saying in this Christmas message: “We’ve witnessed moves to make the celebration of the sacrament of confession illegal, to defund church schools, to charge an archbishop with discrimination for teaching about marriage, and to deny faith-based institutions the right to choose what kind of community they will be.” None of these statements survive a fact check, being at best gross hyperbole. We condemn politicians for this sort of misrepresentation. These claims demonstrate that religious freedom must not become religious licence. Fisher has failed in his duty of Christian pastoral leadership and further damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church. He tries to play the victim on behalf of the Church, stirring a sectarian defensive response to valid condemnations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse of the Church’s institutional behaviour, particularly its clericalism. Ironically, he has thus managed to reinforce what is wrong with Church leadership. Who is going to hold him accountable?

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