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

An open conversation with Archbishop Fisher

College photo taken with Anthony Fisher following formal dinner and talk

The Archbishop of Sydney, Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, visited Warrane as special guest at formal dinner on Wednesday 26 August 2015. After celebrating Mass in the College Chapel and the dinner, he made himself available for a Q&A with residents.

QUESTION: I went to a Catholic secondary school, but when I left I felt I knew absolutely nothing about Catholicism. I wouldn’t have known what a Hail Mary was and I honestly don’t know what half the symbols mean. Do you think this is an issue that the Catholic Church has to address and do you think it has something to do with the NSW syllabus?”

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: I certainly think that it is something we need to address. I am very aware that our Catholic schools are very uneven in their quality, perhaps even within a school with different teachers – some are very switched on to their faith and know it well and others are not at all confident. In fact they are rather diffident about teaching anything about it. I think in general things are better than when I went to school. In the crazy seventies we were basically told to sit around in circles and exchange our feelings about the bomb or about ecology or something and that was RE. The teachers had given up. I think they have regained some confidence and some solidity in the pedagogy of teaching the faith to young people, but it is very uneven. I think our Catholic School system has huge potential, some of it untapped. I could do so much more. It is the envy of much of the rest of the world because most countries do not have what we have by way of the Catholic school system. And you would expect Australia to have more than one canonised saint by now, given the school system we have got. You would expect there to be Catholic leaders who would have really made a difference in terms of the Christian values they brought right across the board – politics, the professions, the workplaces, the culture. Well, again, it is uneven. And so we should demand more and expect more of our schools. And your thought is that part of that might be those last two years of school, when probably young guys and girls are asking the really big questions about the meaning of life, what life is for and what they are going to do with themselves – lots of big questions. It is at that very time that we largely abandon them, I think, in religion. They do a bit of comparative religion, a bit of Buddhism, Aboriginal religion, a bit of whatever. Well, again, I think we could do better than that, so I am presently prosecuting the cause of having a Catholic studies unit recognised for the Higher School Certificate so that someone could in Years Eleven and Twelve do a serious study of their faith and be rewarded for that rather than having that as a rival with their other subjects.

QUESTION: There have been reports about a new class being proposed at schools – I guess getting rid of religion and putting in relationship studies. With this sort of thing going on in parliament how are you trying to combat that?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: I am not sure, but you could be referring to special religious education. Kids in State schools get some input during the year and the school is supposed to make a place for that. Some people are trying to get that stopped so parents will send their kids to other courses. The bishops are working very hard to have those classes maintained. In Australia we have a very benign version of secularity. In most respects we collaborate. So in health care, education, welfare – in lots of areas of life, church and state collaborate in Australia. There are people out there who want to stop that, to ban the Church from the public square, from the provision of things like hospitals, schools, welfare services, from receiving any State funding to do that. And I think we again and again have to watch that what we have achieved in Australia, that very good cooperation between people of faith and people with responsibility for government, that we maintain that going into the future. And it will depend a lot on your generation, whether you think that matters or not.

QUESTION: Can you talk to us about the concept of the inherent dignity of humans, because I see that it is at the basis of many moral issues?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: I think that you can give many different accounts of this idea, that human beings have dignity or have an immeasurable or some people would say an infinite worth – I think immeasurable is probably a better word – that they have a worth that comes with the package as it were of being human. It’s not about what you have achieved or who you love or who loves you or what degrees you’ve got or how much money you have got. Simply by virtue of being human, you matter, you matter very much. Now where does that idea come from? For Christians it is partly informed by their faith. We believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, that they are loved infinitely by that God. They are loved into being and then supported in being every moment of their existence, and intended for an eternity with God. That is a wonderful thing. If that is true, that is a wonderful thing about the human creature – that is what they were made for and that is their destiny, if they cooperate with God. It’s a wonderful thing and invests in human beings a very high value, way beyond their productivity or their consumption of their political influence or any of the things by which the world values us. In addition to those faith reasons – and I could give lots more – for why people of faith might think that human beings have this innate and very great value, you can give a philosophical account. In fact there are a number of philosophical accounts of the intrinsic value of human beings. It’s not peculiar to Christians to think that human beings matter more than anything else and that is something about them to do with their intelligence and their freedom and their ability to love, perhaps there immortality. Perhaps it’s something about them that they don’t lose even if they do really dumb things, or even if they do criminal things, even if they are not making a big social contribution – in fact, even if you are regarded as a net disadvantage to the community. Even in all those circumstances, there is still something precious about you, something that is the basis upon which we would say you have fundamental human rights. Your life should not be violated, your dignity, your value should not be underestimated or devalued by the community around you. And that is the basis for things like the United Nations documents that talk about the rights of every human being. At the heart of that is some notion that everyone matters and matters deeply, even if they are not highly regarded by their fellows and they are not achieving very much or are even embarrassing in some ways. They still matter deeply. It’s a Christian notion, but it is also one we share, I think, with a lot of people with different philosophies and faiths around the world. If you give up on that idea, then you have given up on the basis of human equality. It becomes very hard to construct a case for why people should be treated equally, be regarded equally in the law, should be regarded as having fundamental human rights. It becomes much more a matter of compacts within particular communities – what we agree to. Some people are in, some people are out, some people are going to have more value than others, more influence, more power, more prestige. Lots of things follow if you let go of the idea that human beings have an intrinsic and very great or immeasurable dignity.

QUESTION: With your stance that euthanasia should not be legalised (…) I am interested to hear  to what extent should people be allowed to be responsible for their own autonomy?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: I think that one of the glories of democratic systems of government as opposed to some others out there that are options, is that we do give people a fairly broad space to adopt their own plan of life, to follow their own values and conscience, to make their own mistakes as well as do their own great things in life and we give people a space to do that. We have room for disagreement. We can have a debate about euthanasia or about same-sex marriage or about all sorts of things and not lock up one side for daring to think that way or express that view. I think that is something very precious which again we have to be eternally vigilant about in democracies because it can’t be taken for granted that we will always give each other that space or be given it ourselves. Is it unlimited? Do you say therefore you can be completely arbitrary, you can do whatever you please? Most of us would say, well, no, there are some logical limits to that. For instance there is the limit to giving other people the respect or the freedom you would want to be given yourself. I can’t just randomly take your life because I don’t want you to take mine. So there’s a bit of give and take, a bit of quid pro quo there. That’s one limit. There might be some other limits. For instance, there might be some things that you do that are practically unreasonable. They are self contradictory, they are self destructive, for instance. Or they are destructive of the community around you, without which you couldn’t make many of the choices you would want to make in life. They are deeply harmful to some very great good in the world or in your community. People say: “The way I express my autonomy is the way I like to get a sword and go through all the art works in the NSW Art Gallery.” Well, you know, you mightn’t be hurting anyone, but in a sense you are hurting everyone and yourself because you are radically acting against beauty, against the ability of people to participate in an aesthetic good – in this case the good of looking at beautiful things. So it’s one thing to say that we give people a lot of space to make their own decisions and we respect that people will have different views on things and make their own decisions, perhaps one’s that we wouldn’t make and we hope that people will give us the space, but that’s not limitless. Obviously you are going to have crimes, for instance, you are going to have things that are regarded as such a harm to the community or to individuals that your autonomy is going to be limited in that way. You are going to have other limits, such as the logical limits of choice, where you are contradicting your very own being or your very own good or that of people you should have a concern for. And I could give further accounts of different ways in which we would want to shape people’s use of autonomy. It’s not just a random thing, human freedom, it’s actually an opportunity to do great things. You don’t say: “Well, that’s your opinion, you do what you like, I’ll do what I like. You like to run over little old ladies on Saturday night for entertainment. I like to save lives, it’s all a matter of opinion, it is all expressing your autonomy.” No, freedom, autonomy, our self rule, is actually the opportunity to do the good. In fact to do great things. That’s what we would want to be cultivating in ourselves and in each other – that desire to do great things for each other and for our world.

QUESTION: At school I had many teachers who said mathematics is the language of God. What do you think of that?.

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: I have heard that said too, and I think what people are saying by it is there is something beautiful and simple and yet infinitely complex about mathematics, that there is a kind of order and reason. It helps you make sense of things and I think that is the sort of thing that people are grasping at when they talk about the language of God. It’s not Latin after all, as some people think, or Hebrew, but they would say it is mathematics that God speaks with – that that is a grammar by which we make sense of the order in the universe, that we perceive order and count it and report it to each other, and, to some extent, control it, through measurement and putting things in order. And I think that possibly there is more to God’s language than just the language of mathematics, or the language of logic. But I see what people are grasping at. It’s interesting how many great scientists through history have also been men of faith. People often say that is not possible: “You have to pick one or the other. Be totally cool headed, reasonable, an almost robotic person, to be a scientist and a completely irrational, random person to have faith. These are completely different ways of being.” Well, no, actually lots of great scientists, lots of the biggest names in the history of science, have been believers in God and in fact have seen in the logic, the predictability, the sense you can make of the universe as well as the awe that you have beside its continuing mystery even as you make sense of it. You discover there is more and more that you don’t know as you discover more and more. That measurable, “numberable” universe points you to something greater and more mysterious beyond it, that accounts for it being there, that is not itself captured just by the numbers. And that’s God.

QUESTION: In the case of a man who is a Moslem and has a Catholic wife and they have kids, how can the problem of religion for the kids be solved in this problematic situation?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: I imagine that your Moslem and your Catholic care about their religion, that they care about what their children will be raised as. In many marriages and relationships this is solved because one person doesn’t care and the other person does, so the children end up in the religion of the one who cares – very often the woman, in my experience. Well, what happens when you both care? And I would say in advising any of you in the midst of developing relationships that could lead in that direction that that sort of thing is very good to talk about in advance because it could be a huge point of contention later and I would think if you are going to enter into something as serious as marriage and childbearing you want to have pretty clear between you some of the things that you are going to do with your children. And faith is going to be pretty basic to you. I would like a child to be Christian myself – I think there is very good reason for that, but I can imagine that there would be others who would think differently. But I would certainly advise: work it out if you can before you get married. It might be a sign that marriage is going to be very hard for you two if something that matters so much to you that you can’t agree on.

QUESTION: In my own country there have been concrete moves by the Orthodox Church to  cooperate with Muslims. Is there anything similar happening here?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: Some of you might have seen at the time of the Martin Place siege that we had a big Mass at the Cathedral on the day that the two had been killed and the others had been taken hostage and then a few days later we brought together all the faiths – in particular, myself and the Grand Mufti, the leading Muslim in Australia. We spoke together and prayed and then a few months later we had the issue of the two Aussie men who were to be executed in Indonesia for drug running and even though they had repented and reformed and were actually leading admirable lives and again we spoke out together publicly, the Grand Mufti and I. I thought that it would be much more powerful with him there, given that Indonesia is largely a Muslim country, for him to speak with me and he was very pleased to collaborate with me on this matter. And then a third instance of this was that  I had a dinner at the Cathedral on the last day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, the month of fasting, and the Grand Mufti and the Ayatollah who is the leader of the Shiite Muslims. So we had the leader of the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims, both came to my place for dinner, as well as Jewish Rabbis and other Christian leaders, including Russian and Greek Orthodox leaders too. So we were all together to celebrate with these Muslim leaders the last night of their holy month, their season of fasting and of almsgiving. Those are just three very practical examples where in this country it really is possible for us to collaborate and not be constantly fighting and I hope that we can be an example of that to the world. We have got to work very hard at it. And we have got to work at honouring moderation in these matters and toleration in these matters. That is not to say that we won’t have disagreements, even on quite fundamental things, but that we can live as neighbours, as friends, as collaborators with people who have different views to us. That is working here between Catholics and Muslims at some levels at least. We probably could do more, but it is a lot better here than it is in Syria at the moment, or some other places, where they are killing Christians. I don’t know how many of you realise, a hundred thousand Christians are martyred every year – more than at any time in human history. Right now more Christians are martyred every year than at any time in history. Most people in the world who are persecuted for their faith are Christians. It’s clearly spectacularly so in places like Syria and Iraq. In fact right across the Middle East at the moment. The cradle of Christianity, where Christianity grew up, there may in our lifetime be no Christians at all. There are people who are working very hard to actually wipe them out completely or to force them out of the Middle East. So not everyone thinks as we do that it should be possible to coexist and even be friends to people who think differently to us.

QUESTION: I work in biology and my previous boss and I had an ongoing discussion. It has gone on for ten years plus, about the nature of consciousness. We are both scientists and we are both molecular biologists. Essentially the thrust of the argument has been encapsulated by Benedict XVI who said that the fundamental raw material of the universe is mind rather than matter and my boss – okay he was certainly a guy who had faith – said that consciousness sort of sprung up as an emergent property from the complexity of matter. Matter got more and more complex and suddenly out popped consciousness. I disagreed with that one. Maybe matter has developed to such an extent to allow an infusion of something from outside which is consciousness and self awareness. And we agree to disagree and it’s a lot of fun. My question is, do you think there is a middle ground?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: I am speaking here as a metaphysician rather than as a developmental biologist, so let me be clear, I don’t pretend any expertise in this. The only plausible position is the middle one, and that is that I don’t think that you can say that mind emerges from matter or that matter emerges from mind. I think they both emerged together so that to say that mind emerges from matter would leave out the greatest minds, which is the mind of God, not material in any sense, except you might say in the incarnation where he chose to unite himself to a material nature, or the minds of the angels, which also are entirely immaterial spirits, or the minds of the separated souls of the dead who are awaiting the resurrection. What their minds are is very mysterious to us. They have some continuing connection to the body that was theirs and the body that will be theirs in the resurrection. But in the meantime they are not material. We know of minds that have not emerged from or are not presently connected to matter in any causal way or necessary way. We also know of matter that doesn’t seem to be informed by minds. It might be ordered by some principle or other – genetic, by the laws of nature or by something we might even call soul or life-force or something orders matter in the direction of a plant or animal, but there are lots of material things that don’t ever seem to go in the direction of being minds. They’re still real, they are still good. But I am a hylomorphist: I follow Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas especially in that the most interesting things after God and maybe the angels, are these strange creatures called human beings that are both minds and matter at exactly the same time and can’t be one without being the other. Whatever a soul in purgatory is, it is not a human being, according to Thomas Aquinas. It doesn’t have a body, it doesn’t have matter and so the souls of those who have died await the resurrection because only then will they be fully human beings again. That we are essentially fundamentally material beings and mind beings at once. And I think that is a fascinating thing about humans. It makes us much more interesting than angels and much more interesting than animals. We have got parts of both, or aspects or dimensions of both.

QUESTION: I am interested in your thoughts on marriage and where do you think it stands for people of our generation. Definitely the outlook on marriage is not the same as it was 50 years ago and a lot of people don’t really see the point in getting married when you can just live together. What do you think the motivation to get married is, if you don’t believe in God? I know that a lot of people who don’t believe in God don’t get married. I know it is a very complicated issue but I just wanted to know what you think about it.

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: It’s a very good question and one that I think I could talk about all evening. I think we are the worst failures in history at marrying. There’s never been a culture before in history where, like now, the majority of people are not married. It would have been up at 90 per cent were married in our grandparent’s time. Now most Australians are not married. Many never even try. Or they don’t try until it’s so late that they are actually not very good at it because they are so set in their ways, they are so used to “my way or the highway”. They are not used to the compromise that is at the heart of marriage. If it fails, they might try again and if it fails they love marriage so much that they try three or four or five times. So many of the marriages break up, so many of the children don’t know a stable marriage. They are not being modeled in how you make one work because you don’t see it yourself growing up. We become afraid of commitments. We see so many failing, you think: “Well how do you get it right? And how do you know the right person?” So people go on discerning, whatever that means, in their mind for years and years and years, looking for Mr Right or Miss Right. Well, you know, “the perfect match”. I don’t know who is going to get that. So here we are, the first time in history that we know of this happening, where basically we just don’t seem to know how to marry any more and how to do it well, successfully. And yet, for all that, most people if you ask them where they think they are going to find their greatest happiness in life: it’s by being somebody else’s number one and them being your number one for life, and that leading to a family. In other words, deep down most human beings want marriage. And despite the fact that since the early 1970s we have had no-fault divorce, which effectively means the “for life” bit is optional, we still, everyone who wants marriage, wants to swear, to vow before God, or before the universe, or before the law, or before their friends, at least before each other for life. And they mean it. At that moment they mean it. They mightn’t be very good at it, they might go back on it later, but at that moment I think that they pretty well, nearly all mean it. They really want it to be for life. And I suspect that most people who do it, do it wanting kids, wanting a family, wanting something bigger. It’s going to be demanding, it’s going to, you know, cost me a lot of my independence and a lot of the things I might want, but I really think that kind of sacrifice will be worth it, because that’s where deepest joy comes. And you ask still today, when they survey people, where do you find your deepest joy? They will say in marriage and family, despite the fact that so many of them around us are failing and the culture is completely messed up about what a marriage is and how to support marriages, nonetheless there seems to be this abiding thing in human beings that we are animals that couple and that gives birth to a new generation who that couple cares for. It doesn’t always work, it’s not for everybody, but for most human beings that is their route to happiness. Now I have said all that without referring to God. I also happen to think that is not in us just as some funny thing that occurred as a result of developmental biology or forces in the universe of mathematics and atoms and energies, but actually that’s planted in the human soul, that’s given to us in our nature by a God that actually knows what’s best for us. There are lots of reasons that might be best for us. Like, how on earth are we going to get children and bring them up well if some people don’t commit to having children, and sacrificing themselves for them and being there for them over the long haul. But I think there is another very important reason. For most human beings the way you actually, grow up. the way you really grow into adulthood, is through marriage and childbearing, through having someone else make demands of you and not just mutual demands between a man and a woman, but ultimately children who just scream until you give them what they want and they do that for about … adolescents lasts until about the age of 40 now I think. They do it for about 40 years. That’s what makes people mature, taking responsibility, sacrifice, commit – it’s that type of relationship for most people. Which is another very good reason to not put it off until you are 40 or 50 because you are putting off adulthood. It is nature’s way for many human beings, for most human beings I suspect, for maturing, for learning responsibility and self sacrifice and commitment. And most people still want it. Deep down, deep in their hearts, for all the mess of our culture, that’s what people want. We know that’s the way to happiness, hard as it might be, and mistakes are made along the way, but it’s worth trying, for most people.

QUESTION: You have spoken about autonomy, sexual ethics and things, but I was wondering if you could tie it all up by saying you have got this link between pleasure and inherent happiness and in between there’s kind of autonomy. However increasingly we are seeing in society that pornography has become the status quo. In a boarding house – I can speak from experience – it is a normal part of life of being in a boarding house. How do you think that we, as a society, should revert back to something that sees that as bad. And how do we say to people that inherently think that pornography is somewhat acceptable, it is somewhat okay if we just do it, that it doesn’t affect anyone else. How do we say to them that in fact it does?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: Again, there is a whole night of discussion to be had about pornography because it is absolutely rampant. It’s huge in our culture and perhaps especially among young men. It’s a big question for all of you to confront. I mean: what is your attitude to this? And one thing you might ask is: do I just want to be an object in other people’s minds, or do I  want to be a subject? Do I want to be someone that matters intrinsically, with inherent dignity, that matters in that very kind of high view that I put earlier today, or just be something that can be used and abused  by others for their own pleasure. And if I am wanting more for me, then why am I not wanting more for other people. Why do I think it is good enough for other people to turn other people into objects, just to be used and abused for pleasure, for my pleasure? This is not just a creature of the Internet age. You know there were dirty old men who opened up their overcoats and had photographs of kind of fat half-dressed women a hundred years ago – you know, postcards. Jesus talked about people who commit adultery in their hearts. And he was talking about a kind of objectifying people. So it is not just that you are actually engaging in adultery, you are treating the other person as just a thing for your sexual pleasure for your fantasising, for your imagination, for what fuels what follows. So this is a perennial challenge for human beings, it is not just in the hi-tech age. But we know these technologies – and I was talking to those of you who were at Mass tonight – they have a power. They are almost hypnotic and addictive and once you head down that path you consume more and more and more of your time. Your imaginative life, your fantasy life – life that could be applied to so many good things –  is just flitted away in this kind of objectifying of yourself and others and seeking a kind of immediate gratification, which doesn’t satisfy, which has to be kept being fed, like other addictions, with more and more and more extreme and bizarre things. It’s not that we are a uniquely perverse age then. Jesus had to talk about it 2000 years ago. It was there in the human heart from the beginning but we have the extra challenge, I think, of the technologies that make it so accessible, so easy and so addictive in many ways. You don’t have to care about the person at the other end of the internet image in the slightest. It is so much easier than even going into a store to buy a magazine or to some dirty old man in the 19th century with his postcards in his overcoat. You can just press a button and there it is in your room. It’s so easy and it’s so addictive and I have talked to so many young men in the confessional and other places who find that this just gobbles them up – more and more of their time, affects their relationships, it affects ultimately the way they relate to the women that matter to them because it has kind of distorted their fantasy life and their expectations. So be careful about this stuff. It can mess you up. That’s my experience with talking to young people, especially young men that have gone down the path of internet porn and all that stuff. Okay, it’s not the worst thing in the world. There are worse things in the world like, I remember a wonderful wise priest saying once to someone who said nothing could be worse than murder, he said, “Oh yes, uttering a blasphemy would be worse. A direct attack on God, what could be worse than that?” Yeah, there are worse things, but this is something that can really deeply affect your heart and your ability to connect and relate well to the person you should – which is your wife. Try to be, as I said tonight, people of clean hands and a clean heart. That’s what you want to offer a woman one day and the children that may come of that.

QUESTION: Some people in the college take their faith seriously. I think everyone in the college takes life seriously anyway. Are there any parting words that you would like to tell us as a community of Warrane College?

ARCHBISHOP FISHER: This is an unusual college. In case any of you have never been to any other college and you think they are all like this, uh, no, it’s quite odd – remarkable! You know, a group of men who would talk to an archbishop on a Wednesday night, some of whom have been at Mass first, who would have a civil conversation about the big questions of life, what it’s all for, what it is. Not everyone does that in our world. Or on any kind of systematic basis. They might after a few pints of beer start philosophising a bit – less and less coherently as the night goes on! But you have a chance here for a few years, some of you for only a few months, to ask those big questions and do it in a context where you are encouraged to study and to care passionately about the big questions, about God, about yourself, about friendship and so on, what your ideals are going to be, who you are going to be in life. That’s a precious time. Later you will look back at that and say, wow, I was lucky to have those few years where I could read and think and argue and discuss and get things right and get things wrong, and people would let me. People would tease me perhaps, but enjoy this time, it’s a wonderful time in your life being a university student. I only had fifteen and a half years at uni myself. I mean, I went and started teaching in one, but I would happily have spent another fifteen and a half years there – there’s just so much to know about out there, and to think about and to argue about and enjoy thinking about with others in a community like this where you are safe to think and you are encouraged to think and you are supported pastorally, spiritually and in other ways. What a good thing. Your are lucky to be here at Warrane. I really think that. God bless you.

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