Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

From suffering to safe schools: Q&A with Archbishop Anthony Fisher

From suffering to safe schools: Q&A with Archbishop Anthony Fisher
On 18 October 2017, it was the Most Reverend Anthony Fisher OP who visited Warrane College as the Wednesday Night Guest. Archbishop of Sydney since 2014, he grew up in Sydney and has filled a number of roles since entering the religious congregation of the Dominicans in 1985 – Chaplain to the Parliament of Victoria, Co-ordinator of World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, and more. 

At Warrane the boys asked a series of questions, covering topics from suffering and the intersection between religion and politics; to the Royal Commission and the Safe Schools Campaign. 

Q: What is the role of the church in dealing with sexual abuse at the hands of clergy?
A: I think most of you would be aware…we’ve had quite a crisis in Australia in recent years of revelation of high rates of sexual abuse by clergy, from religious, and also some lay workers in the church. Most of it historic – most of it in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and into the early ‘80s, but some of it more recently; and all of it having done terrible damage to the people that were abused, to their families, to their futures… This has been highlighted by the Royal Commission…which has been working on the topic for the best part of five years. So what has it found? That in  many institutions in Australia, including the churches – which should have been the safest places for children…very often they were not as safe as they should be… Things were not handled well, so abusers were given the chance to go and do more bad things… We have to examine our whole institutional culture – how were these things tolerated? – to ensure these things never happen again; and what we can do to bring some measure of justice and healing to these victims.

I think we are way ahead of where we were when these things happened – we’re much more conscious of this issue; we’ve got much better education of our clergy, our religious, our lay leaders – seeing the kind of warning signs of this kind of behaviour, intervening quickly, responding… But I think we still have things to learn, and the Royal Commission has a lot of things to say to us, as it does to other churches, charities and institutions…

I think it has been a humiliation for the church, it’s been a purification for the church, I think it had to come – the royal commission had to come. We needed this provocation to help us deal with this better… I think our credibility has really been rocked by this, amongst even ordinary Catholics let alone the rest of the community. We should have been better than other institutions – instead we were as bad, and in some respects, worse. And that’s a shameful thing for those of us today who love the church and care about young people and their safety. So there is a task for the next generation of Catholic leaders and members to regain the community’s trust by really demonstrating we’re going to be better – we’re going to do our best for the victims, and we’re going to be a better, purer, perhaps humbler church as a result of what we’ve gone through.

Q: Attempting to modernise the church to make it more appealing – has it weakened the church and its integrity?
A: The church is always renewing itself, it’s always reforming by going back to its roots, to its inspiration in the gospels, the life of Jesus Christ above all, the lives of the saints, the heroes of our church, the great doctors and so on and so forth. So there’s a sense in which we always – every generation – has to ask itself afresh, are we being authentic as Christians, as Catholics; what should we be regaining, renewing from our past; what things should we do differently going forward? And that’ll be a question for your generation as it was for mine, as it was for the dozens of generations of Christians before us. 

I think some things are perennial in our Christian church as they are things given us by God – that it’s not up to me or you on anyone else to reinvent.  We could say ‘we don’t like there being three persons in the Trinity, we think there should be four’ – we can think that, but we’re wrong… These things are clear and settled for Catholics. If someone says… seven out of the 10 commandments aren’t so fashionable anymore, we’ll dump those – well they don’t understand Christianity. It’s something we’ve been given by God…a real treasure to share with each generation. But do we need to think afresh in each situation – what language do we use, how do we engage a new issue that has never been considered by Christians before (perhaps raised by a new technology or a new way of thinking…)? Of course we have to think afresh and approach some things afresh. 

Now there’ll be some things that are somewhere in between – the things that can never change and the things that are very much the responses to the moment… Some of the attempts to modernise help some people to be more connected to Christ and enter more deeply into the life of the church, and actually turn other people off. There are real, sometimes difficult, judgements of prudence about what’s going to work to connect people with Christ and His church, but it can never be at the expense of things revealed by God and handed down to us by the apostles. It can always be at the expense of things that are trivial or passing, or reflect the fashions of the age.   

Q: What is the Archdiocese’s role in responding to the government introducing things like the Safe Schools Campaign?
A: There’s been a reaction to that and a lot of that’s been pushed back – governments aren’t funding it anymore. But it does raise questions like: what are parents’ roles and rights in this situation? Can they say, in respect to their own kid, ‘I don’t want my kid exposed to that; I’m the first person responsible for their education and I want you to help me not to take away my parenting role’? What about church schools, where there’s also a faith community that has a particular perspective on these things and should they be able to say ‘Well we’re not having that stuff in our school’?… Should they be free to keep teaching those things in a society that’s culturally shifting…and my guess is that even in this college, this room, there’d be a lot of different views about some issues around sexual morality…and I think it’s a very healthy thing that we can recognise those and talk about those. 

I think as the Chief Shepherd for the Archdiocese of Sydney, I have to be sure that my kids are genuinely safe, and that’s not some kind of ideology or passing fad, but rather that they are kept safe from anybody who wants to harm them physically or sexually, bully them, hurt them, damage them emotionally, damage them intellectually…damage them morally and spiritually… So I’ve got to try and make sure that any programs in my schools have got to be genuinely healthy and life-giving… and give them ways to live good lives in the years ahead. So if someone’s pushing something iffy…. Well I’m going to be resisting those things being hoisted in my schools… and in any schools. I don’t just care about the kids in Catholic schools. Half the Catholic kids aren’t in Catholic schools! And I care about all the kids anyway, whatever religion they are… I want them all to be happy and to thrive… I think Safe Schools is largely dead in NSW, but it does challenge us – what do we do instead? If it began as an anti-bullying program, well what are we doing to make sure there’s no bullying in our schools? What are we doing to make sure kids are respected, whatever their inclinations, temperaments, backgrounds… that they are loved, that they are safe and secure… If we don’t want to go with the gender fluid ideology, well then what are we offering instead? 

Q: Suffering – how can we explain to others an all-loving God who allows suffering?
A: Why suffering when there’s a good God and an all-powerful God? I think every human being at some point wonders about that, particularly when you are suffering yourself or someone else is… Some of you will know that the Christmas before last, in the space of about 12 hours, I went from being completely normal to being totally paralysed. I spent five months in hospital and learning how to walk again, how to use my hands, use cutlery, use a pen, hold a chalice. I had to basically go through my childhood all over again, learn everything from scratch and rebuild all my muscles… I could have died, and I was at one stage in very, very awful and neuropathic pain too. So I had my own experience of suffering….and so it meant I asked some of these questions that everybody asks at some stage, with a perspective of my own experience too of suffering. 

I think that I’m as convinced as I ever was that in essence, suffering is not incompatible with an omnipotent, all-good God, and it’s for this reason. God engages in an extraordinary gamble when he creates creatures that are intelligent and free… If we are going to be able to make decisions, we’re going to need a natural universe that observes certain rhythms…otherwise we can’t make any decisions as we can’t predict what will be there tomorrow or what will happen…. If you have that kind of universe that’s running itself according to its own laws, then all sorts of things are going to be wonderful and all sorts of things are going to go wrong. Great weather somewhere is bad weather somewhere else. Great resources somewhere is not having the same resources somewhere else, and on and on it goes. One way or another, there’s going to be upsides and downsides to any way you organise the world. Unless God keeps intervening at every moment, and we become puppets then… We have to no choices to make if every time things go awry, or something isn’t going well for us, there’s a divine intervention. 

Now God could have made us that way – we would have just been happy puppets, but we never would have had the experiences an intelligent, free being has of doing good, as well as doing evil…of suffering evil in a way that contributes to some growth in our personality, in our soul – it somehow makes us nobler. I think one of the big things that innocent suffering presents us with is the challenge: what am I going to do about it when someone else is suffering? … I was blessed to live in a country where I was looked after so well… This is a society that chooses to look after people well, but there are still questions – do we look after all suffering well…do we look after the elderly and the mentally ill?… We could still do better. 

I understand for some people that suffering is the reef on which their faith breaks. The face of death, or near-death, or endless chronic pain: they can’t believe anymore that some greater power loves them or cares. But in my own case, I think there was a growing closer to God because of my dependence. I’d had a very good life ‘til then – very comfortable, affluent, perfect health all my life, nothing much seemed to ever go wrong for me. Maybe I had to be shaken up in this way so I had to depend on other people and depend on God more. I certainly have learnt to do that and that’s taught me things about human beings I think… we’re very dependent beings and we need each other in all sorts of ways from birth to death… And knowing that about each other should play out in all sorts of ways in the way we care about ourselves and about each other… I think I’ve learnt some good things about myself and the human condition. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I think it’s been good for me.

A wicked friend of mine said there’s nothing I could have done as Archbishop of Sydney, to get Sydney praying together about the same thing (and indeed people beyond Sydney) – no program of prayer, no pastoral letter… Nothing I could have done would be so effective to get people to pray than getting dangerously sick myself. And he suggested I should do this every two or three years for the spiritual good of the people of Sydney… It’s not quite my plan but it is remarkable how people united in their care of me and prayer for me. It’s a beautiful thing to see… and I think that will carry me through for life. 

Q: The church offers good sense of community – how does someone in a in a position of leadership go about fostering a sense of community?
I think there is a paradox in the heart of Western civilisation at the moment that it has become so individualistic – it so valourizes the powerful, self-determining, totally self-sufficient individual in our politics, in our economy, in various aspects of our culture. We’re supposed to almost be able to create our own values, sustain our own living, and not need anybody, except as we choose by some kind of mutual arrangement… 

But at the same time people are craving for community, and there are so many different signals of that. There’s either the kind of feeling of utter failure when we hear that an old lady’s died and been three months in her house dead before anyone’s noticed. And we all feel, what is wrong with our neighbourhoods, that that can happen… Or we see someone searching, whether it’s in the world of social media or through chat lines… they’re desperate to find relationships that will sustain them or friendships that are longer-lasting than what they’re experiencing at the moment. So we know people need this! We don’t generate our own life, it happens in communities called families. We don’t generate our own values – they are largely received from many generations … A lot of our identity and what we value is a gift from generations before….when people lack that, they’re very much at sea…

So we have to be thinking as a society beyond the me-generation…because that doesn’t work for people… We need lasting meaningful relationships and communities… For our church, we have to see what are the ways going to be in the 2010s, 2020s, 2030s, because they’re not going to be the same as they were… What ways are we going to find for people to connect and have long-term friendships; relationships that really sustain them and give them identity and give them purpose? 

Q: What relationship should exist between the church and politics?
 How does the church relate to the state…to society? There are lots of different views about this… There are some countries where religion wants to run everything and dictate to everybody – theocracies. And they are frankly not very nice places to be, particularly if you don’t belong to the faith in charge… that’s one extreme. At the other extreme you’ve got situations where the church is basically forced underground. It’s to have no influence on society… It’s banned, it’s belittled, people of faith are cut out of the public square…

In between those extremes, there are different versions… I happen to think that mostly, Australia’s got it pretty right. We mostly in this country, have recognised that there are different spheres – the religious and the secular… They respect each other, they mostly don’t interfere with each other, they do their own thing in their own space, and then there are some areas where we have common interests and we work together, in education for instance…hospitals would be another example… 

But there are forces at the moment that would like to push people of faith out of the question altogether… for example in the euthanasia debate and the marriage debate… So there are people who’d like to change that balance between church and state…and I think our response mustn’t be to say we want theocracy instead… we want respecting each other’s spheres of activity, collaborating where we can, and doing our own thing most of the rest of the time. 

(Photographs from the evening are available here)