Australian Biography

Veronica Brady - full interview transcript

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You spent a lifetime working for social change, both in the wider society and in the church, and in the Seventies you say Vatican II and a sort of sea change in the church, and it was the time of Whitlam, and a lot of changes that you'd worked for, but now we see things going, in that sense, in your sense, backwards. And I wonder how you feel about that, I wonder whether you feel a sense of frustration that in fact, not that much has changed.

The answer to the second question, the answer is, yes, I often do feel frustrated. But I think I ... I think it's not true to say that I've worked for social change. That's why I'm in a bit of a despair of people who are really organised. I tend to do what I think I need to do and frankly I seldom think that ... think about winning or not. I think that's again part of my religious belief. I really do believe that in the long run God's ... God's spirit ... well I happen to believe that God's spirit is working through the world and that it's our responsibility to work with that spirit, which is a spirit of love and justice and hope. And my sense is that's ... there's a pattern to it all, which we don't really understand. I also believe, in my funny sort of theological way, that the way to ... certainly the Christian way is that you have to ... have to be prepared to be a loser. I mean Jesus was a loser. And then somehow through losing and giving all of yourself, and believing in this larger good, that good comes about. And I really do think that we do not see the reality of human beings. One of the things in the Gospel is the kingdom of God, the rule of God, is within you. So, on the outside things look very bad, but my view is that I have to do what I have to do, if I believe that I'm supposed to be part of this larger plan, and that that larger plan is ... is ... will move on. Not move in a stunning sort of way. I've never really been a utopian, and when I do get depressed, and I get profoundly depressed about our society at the moment. I get profound ... Most of all I get depressed about the, the racist reaction against Mabo. It seemed to me when ... when Paul Keating made that speech at the opening of the Year of Indigenous People in Redfern, in which he apologised on behalf of all Australians to the Aboriginal people, I thought, oh isn't this wonderful. At last it's happened, a brave new era is going to open up, and then when the Mabo decision came, I think it was ... I don't know whether it was before or after that, I thought, great we're now getting somewhere. Now, on the surface, we seem to be going backwards. But that's simply if you trust what you see in the media and what the appearances are. I think that if you do believe in these things, you keep on believing, and you put on your tin hats and I think sometimes we go through bad times, and the important thing is to keep that little flame alight. The one story or essay I think I read when I was a child at school, one of Robert Louis Stevenson's ... It's called The Lantern Bearers, and [it] was just a personal reminiscence of when he was a boy in a Scottish town. There was a gang formed, and they used beg, borrow or steal one of the old hurricane lanterns, and then go out on a dark winter's night and hide that lantern under their coats, and then when they met a fellow member of the gang, the thing was, you opened your coat and you showed the flame to somebody else. The original flashers if you like, but I thought that was a wonderful image, and Auden has a line somewhere that we have to show the affirming flame, that in dark times, you've got to keep the light alive. And there may be many other people with a light, many more people than you know, and you just keep on. Because as I said, the main thing is not the winning, it's keeping the thing alive. So ... and I think if I were .. if I didn't believe those things I would be unutterably depressed about the way our society ... The gap is growing between rich and poor. That's something else which appals me. And increasingly, if you don't have money, your children are condemned to a less good education than people who are now able to buy a better education. That there's a whole generation growing up of young people who have very very little hope of a job, and in our society, a job means purpose and job means dignity. That appals me. It appals me this outburst of dreadful tribal nationalism throughout the world. I mean, I was in Dubrovnik at a PEN conference last April, and of course Dubrovnik has suffered nothing in comparison with other parts of the former Yugoslavia. And as I say, the growing ... the economic crisis, which is sending the whole world into a frenzy and meaning that the poor are bearing the burdens. The crisis of overpopulation and the threat to the environment - all these things can make you feel really awful. I mean they do. And I just hate ... I try not to think about what it's like to be say a woman in Africa. Or ... or a child growing up here in, with parents ... perhaps you've only got a single parent, and you go to a less than good school - not the fault of the school teachers. I mean, some of our schools now are like gaols because children are forced to stay on in school, and they know. They know that there's no point. Our education system, by and large, exists to educate people for jobs and jobs don't exist for the poor. So I ... you know, it is very depressing, but then, I think my job is to keep hoping. And then also, we were talking about this last night, since there's so much unhappiness on the planet it's also important to keep up the happiness quotient. Not at other people's expense. But I don't see any point in my going around miserable. Somebody's got to be happy and so, you know, let's get on with that.

Have you seen anything in the course of your life that does give you hope, though? Are there areas of improvement that you've seen, where things have got better for people?

Well, yes of course. How many people nowadays care about peace, and think that war is just so outrageous? How many people are deeply, deeply concerned about the environment? And think about us as Australians, [and] our new awareness of our place in the world, our new openness to other cultures. The interest in the arts is growing, and then I find, especially amongst young people I know ... I love young people, I think they're marvellous. But I mean, fortunately, I meet the wonderful ones - most of them. They are really looking for values and one of my great, great griefs is that they don't seem to find it in the institutional church. I think the institutional church has sold people so terribly short. I mean, God help us, this is my judgement, but how many people of my sort - and I know we're probably just an eccentric minority - can look to a church which seems to be fixated on sexuality, which is appallingly misogynist? I mean, they refuse even ... the Catholic Church refuses even to entertain the notion of women priests. At least the dear old Anglicans sweated it through and have got somewhere. Yes, I'll say it, in this diocese we have an archbishop who hasn't uttered a peep over Mabo. The Anglican Archbishop has been very outspoken. The Uniting Church have been very outspoken. If that's not ... If that issue of justice to our Aboriginal sisters and brothers is not an issue for a Christian, I ask you, what is? Instead, there's so much concern in keeping the institution going, in founding this private Catholic University. It's sort of fiddling while Rome burns. So I mean these are dreadful things for me to say, and I'm not saying these are bad people. They're just ... To me personally, it's great anguish because I don't think you can invent your own religion. I really do think that there are great religious traditions, which have grown up over thousands of years, and I find it ... I know it's okay. You know, more and more people are drawn to eastern religions, but I happen to be a Christian, and I think that Christianity is jolly good. As Chesterton used to say, it's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it's been found difficult and not trite. However ...

The current expression of the great tradition to which you belong. has come in a recent encyclical from the Pope. What do you feel about that as a sort of statement of the position of the church at the moment?

I find it very dispiriting.

What aspects of it do you find?

Well, let's go through it. First of all, I think its scriptural basis is lamentable. One would ... I mean the church exists under the judgement of God, and part of that judgement of God is Scripture, and in order ... Scripture is terribly difficult and dangerous and we know what the fundamentalists do, but there are scholarly tools to use. Now this encyclical was based on the fundamentalist, pious reading of the story of the rich young man and the Gospel, which is a story about this ... They don't ... He doesn't even set it in context. In the context, Jesus ... A group of children has just been brought to Jesus and Jesus blesses them and then says to his followers ... he says, 'Unless you become like these little children, you won't get anywhere. You won't be part of the kingdom of God'. And that in itself is an attack on power and arrogance and domination. At least it's usually taken in that way. I mean Jesus was a stirrer also. And then this young man ... wealthy young man watching says, 'Oh, this is terrific! Well good master, what must I do to have eternal life?' And Jesus says, 'Don't call anyone good except God,' and that's ... that's some sort of ... You'll see in a minute when this high papal authority is concerned ... And the young man says, 'Well, look I've kept all the commandments,' and Jesus says, 'That's good but that's not enough. What you must do is sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow me'. In other words the life of the spirit, not just the letter of the law. And the rich young man turns away, and then after that Jesus turns to his disciples and says, 'Now look, chums, you've got to have a different kind of authority'. Now that's ... that is the, I would think, a relatively intelligent scriptural reading but, the way this encyclical reads it just says, 'We must follow Jesus'. Well, okay. But it's pretty fundamentalist. And then it attacks trends of our time. Well that's all right: excessive intellectualism and excessive acceptance of the values of our time. Well yes, of course you can't take everything. And then it was ... it's particular target is appeal to conscience. Now I think again that's ... It makes the point that conscience is subordinate to truth, well of course we all know that. But what is truth, suggesting Pilate. Then the next move: it more or less says the papacy, the pope, is truth and that whatever the papacy says must be accepted, and then it goes into a long excursus about different forms of morality - attacking some of the best accepted intellectual forms, and above all, the notion that one can only make moral decisions within one's self. Of course they have to be informed by the question of tradition and of course we're all likely to make mistakes, but the ... this document condemns all other forms of notions of morality, except the notion that the present Pope assumes, and then goes on to the most ... most astonishing statement that some acts are intrinsically evil. Some acts are intrinsically evil. Now I'm sorry, I cannot accept that. I mean, we've been given brains. It's the intention with which you do things. And then of course, what are those acts? They are contraception, abortion, a whole raft of things like that. But what is stunning is it is utterly individualistic. There's not a mention of the crisis of population in the world, and now it is perfectly true, somebody said to me, the Pope has also written encyclicals about that, yeah, but it's germane to this issue. So I find ... and it's style is terrible, and it's dogmatic, and of course it's not ... not infallible. That's what people don't understand.

It's not infallible, but it is an expression of the church to which you belong in its current state and it is an expression of everything you've always opposed in life. You've always opposed that kind of authority. Everything you've told us about yourself and about your belief system is opposed to what was expressed in that recent encyclical. How do you reconcile your continued membership of the church?

Because I think that one has to take a long, historical view. The contemporary papacy is the product of a certain decision in 1870, which as a historian I would say was at least influenced by political circumstances: the loss of the papal states. And all that the contemporary papacy says is that the pope is infallible in matters of ... which are declared, which the Vatican II declared. But the ... one of the things I find interesting about the present papacy is that it is a reaction against Vatican II. Now if one is going to trade these things, it is probably better theology to say that authority lies with the council, which is the assembly - not of course the whole people, but of all the bishops and their experts, and drawing them together. And that council was called together by - well I'll call him a great pope because I happen to agree with him - John XXIII, who set the task of seeing where God was speaking to us in our times, which seems to me to be fundamentally in tune with the Scripture, and with the whole spirit of Christianity throughout the ages. And Vatican II defined church as the people of God. I do not see, I do not believe, that the church belongs only to the priesthood and only ... And there is such a thing as the priesthood of all believers and I do not believe that it belongs only to the papacy and it seems to me ... and look throughout Catholic history there are long, long traditions of people contesting the papacy, even though we've had some very peculiar popes in the past. That great Catherine of Sienna, a saint, argued with the papacy of her day. The papacy is part of ... part of our church. The papacy is the focus of our faith, but it is the church. The church is the church of all the people and that's what would ... distresses me: that there are so many people now who are feeling that they're no longer the church. And of course the Roman church, that's not ... when you're travelling you realise that there's ... I mean for instance, there's a wonderful church in East Timor - the church of the poor. There's a wonderful church in many parts of South America - the church of the poor. There's some wonderful things going on in South India, where there are people trying to see [what] Christianity and Hinduism have in common. Wonderful churches throughout the world. It's not just Roman.

So you take the broader view in space and the broader view in time and you feel that good traditions continue within the church and will reassert themselves formally at future times. But if you were a Catholic woman, with several children already, and unemployed and so on, how would you feel at the moment about the constant reassertion of the notion that the notion that the control of fertility isn't something that ... well that controlling fertility is intrinsically evil?

I think that most intelligent Catholics follow their own consciences. That's the sort of thing the Pope dislikes and is very worried about. And of course you would have to take it very seriously. I mean I do happen to think that some people restrict their families or don't have children out of selfishness. I think that's true. I think, like everything else, one must be conscientious about the control of fertility, but I find it hard to believe that in just this single matter we have to be completely subject to natural causes, whereas in every other ... I think the notion of the natural law is just plain nonsense. In every other ... Every moment we have surgery we're interfering with nature. I am pretty sure that I would be using my own conscience and that's the sad thing. When you have an authority which is making laws which the people do not, and, in good conscience, cannot keep, something's wrong somewhere. Now it may be, I'm perfectly prepared to concede that I'm wicked and that I'm ... I've been profoundly influenced by the wicked ways of the world in our time. And there's no doubt that we do live in a hedonistic society. I may be ... but as far as I can see and I'm searching myself, I don't think I am, and I'm not judging these other people. But just ... it seems to me that the sorts of things that are being said by the papacy are not in tune with where God seems to be speaking to ordinary people. And if anyone ought to know about sexual morality, it's the ... celibates shouldn't. We should keep out of it. It is there where other people are forming their consciences and understanding.

Well of course some people argue that it's the celibacy that's the problem and that that's that alienates people from ...

I agree.

So as somebody who practices celibacy yourself, do you think that this could be a genuine criticism?

I do. I think myself that, I'll put it in theological terms, I think it's a gift that you can function as a normal, relatively normal, human being without explicit expression of your own physical sexuality. I think you can be psychically sexual, and so on. And I don't think there are many people who have that gift. And I puzzle about it, that it is ... a gift that is made compulsory it seems, to me, to be wrong. See, the other Christian traditions seem to manage to totter along with a married clergy. And there's no ... as far as I can see there's no theological or scriptural justification. Certainly Peter was married.

And do you yourself say that you have no difficulty personally ...

No. No.

... living as a celibate, but do you know people, have you known other nuns and priests who had problems with it?

Yes. Yes.

What kind of problems did they have?

I know particularly men find it extraordinarily difficult not to be able to express it, and not to be able to make love. I think, you know, they're excited and attracted to people and I mean everybody has to control [their] sexuality. I mean, think about the average normally sexed man in particular. If he's a parish priest, the poor man is usually living by himself in the middle of families. He's usually very lonely. I mean it's pretty ... it's asking a lot. And I think very often they have to repress very much, and in the past certainly they were taught some awful things about women's expressions ... as you know, sources of temptation and evil and there was a tremendous amount of misogyny in the attitudes towards women amongst the Catholic clergy. And we've had all these dreadful scandals in the States or even here - molesting children and so forth. So I ... to me it's very sad. What's wrong with being married, I ask you? It just beats me. But you see then, hundreds of years of sacrifice ... And again going back to the case of those Catholics who didn't use contraception and had big families, a lot of them now feel betrayed. They say, 'We made these sacrifices, now other people are getting it easily', and I think, you know, people say, 'Well look, we made the sacrifice of celibacy, why should we change it?' And then, we all love habit. And there are many Catholics, especially traditional Catholics, who say, 'Oh, you know we can't stand a married clergy after all. How would we respect them? You'd have the same sorts of problems as we do', which again has funny notions of authority. But you see, that's my difficulty, that I sort of think about things and I ... for the life of me I can't see that it's logical.

Do you think it's likely that we will have married clergy in the Catholic Church in the next ...

Yes I do. Not in this, pope's lifetime, but if we have a different sort of pope, yes. I meant that's one of the advantages of the Catholic Church. If someone at the top says, 'Do something', if it's a thing to be done it will be done, but when someone at the top is saying things which don't make sense ... Now I perfectly concede that what the present pope is saying may make an immense amount of sense in Poland and Eastern Europe or in many other countries, but it just doesn't seem to make sense in Australia, or the States, or in most Western Countries. It may well be that we are corrupt and dreadful, I admit that, but nonetheless, God comes to people in the midst of their corruption and dreadfulness and helps them to live.

What about women priests?

Well again I see absolutely no reason, and in fact, well we know, they're just cultural things. They say the loveliest ... the standard argument is - this is a neo-scholastic one - the matter of sacrament of orders is Jesus. Jesus was a male, ergo only males can be priests. But I heard a priest trot that out and ... it was a small mass in a side chapel, and one aging actress ... she's now very old, Nita Pound - you may know Nita, for whom Patrick White wrote the part of the Goat Woman in Night on Bald Mountain. Nita in her best theatrical voice said, 'Oh Father, don't be silly', because the fact is that Jesus was a human being. And Jesus was also ... don't forget Jesus was not a priest as we are now, he was a lay person, and ... and there's been a development of things. It is true that the position of women was different in the time of Jesus, but it's also true that all the evidence is that he was remarkably respectful of women and was ... he scandalised people the way he associated with women. And there's a good deal of evidence also that women in the very early church had positions of authority. But in any case, we live in different times and I just think you cannot deny the development of doctrine and the development of society. So I ask you what is wrong with women? Imagine in a religious community, just supposing if our superior were able to celebrate the Eucharist? The Eucharist is the family meal. And I felt it profoundly moving when I've heard Eucharists celebrated by Anglican women priests. It seemed so right to have the woman there officiating at the table. But I don't feel personally called to be a priest, though one of my friends in the order and a colleague does, and I also know a magnificent young woman who feels called. She worked in the theatre and she then did a theology degree and she really believes she's called to be a priest. And of course there's no hope. Not yet.

If you had to describe how you think and feel about the idea of God, how would you do that?

My favourite image is that wonderful one in the Jewish Scriptures about the burning bush. Moses went out in the desert and there was this extraordinary ... and of course I think the desert's important. You've got to be out into a place where you feel a sense of the infinite, that you are not the centre of things. You've got to have some sense of resonance and awe, and there's this wonderful thing: this fire, which is burning and yet not consuming itself, and then when Moses says, 'Well, who are you?' and the voice says, 'I am'. Who am? 'I am who I will be. I'm is-ness'. Then the next bit about it was this extraordinary thing that ... and I know this seems very. very offensive to Jewish people so I apologise for anyone who is listening to this ... that this is-ness became a human being, who rocked boats, because of that total fidelity he had to ... to the God. This is the whole business about the Trinity, and then because he upset people, and ... and challenged those in power, then he was put to death as a criminal - dumped out onto the rubbish heap and then ... well this is the bit that you either believe or you don't, everything hinges on it, and I believe it, nobody has disproved it, then he was raised up and lives, and then sent his spirit ... his spirit to be with us still. And that's what the community ... the Christian community is a community in that spirit. I'm perfectly convinced that we haven't got the foggiest notion of what the Godness of God is because I think in one sense, assuming that Jesus was divine, he was a concealment of divinity because he was an ordinary human being. And there was a lot of nonsense used to be talked about his ... whether he was lying, [as] a baby in the cradle, he knew. He was a proper human being, he didn't. But in some mysterious way that was God amongst us. And then God's spirit still lives with us. And ... and that's why I believe he sends his spirit flowing through history and flowing through us and why I believe in this sort of inwardness, and if the resurrection happened then it means that good is going to win in the long run, perhaps a very long run, and that finally our task in this world is given to us, and other people are given to us, and we've got to make it better and more loving, and more generous, and more fruitful and joyous, and eventually it'll be okay.

Now you say you'd do this in the sense of the Catholic tradition, although you think that it's perfectly okay to do it in any religious tradition. But you do it within the Catholic Church because that's the culture in which you were raised. And you look to the positive in all of that. Do you think sometimes that you idealise the church in order to be able to live with it?

Well one thing I also want to make clear, personally I believe that Jesus was the ,.. the perfect revelation of God. If that's true, then Jesus was. And I believe then therefore, that Christianity is ... is the best. That's for me. But I see it. But of course God ... this again goes back into ... this is not Brady's heresy. God speaks to everybody. I mean, this old notion ... silly notion [that] outside the church there's no salvation, that was terrible stuff, but God speaks to everybody in different ways. And so again that wonderful image at the end of Purgatorio, each little light going across the ocean of being, to its own port. So I have no difficulty about that. I was born into the Catholic tradition and I ... I don't think I idealise it, it's ... I'm fully aware of all its warts and things like that, but it does seem to me that there is a great, great tradition - not just of ideas but of faith and belief. All those holy people we call saints, or wonderful writings of mystics and marvellous people like St. Francis of Assisi. The holiest place I know on Earth is Assisi. The writings of people like John of the Cross, or the wonderful Julian of Norwich or Eckhardt, and so on and so forth. The poets and writers. I mean, I think Hopkins is a wonderful poet, [even though] a bit difficult. So I don't think ... I don't ... on ... on the contrary I don't idealise it at all. You see, what people outside Catholicism don't realise is the very ancient tradition of anti-clericalism. I think particularly in the Irish. See my father was an example of that. You read Chaucer. He says extremely rude things about priests and monks and nuns and so forth.

Is it because of authority?

Yes. It's our family. And we all know that we've got funny people in the family, but it's ... it's where I was born and you see, [there are] thousands of years presumably of Irish Catholics, and, you know, most of us were intermarried, which was the whole Catholic thing, so that's who I am.

Going back to Catholic childhood and the moment under the lemon tree, where you had a feeling of oneness with everything that was around you, you interpreted that as religious experience. Do you think that if you hadn't been brought up religious, you would have seen it as a religious experience?

Well at that I don't think I did it interpret it as a religious experience other than say it was just wonderful. I mean other moments lying on my back looking up at the stars ... [INTERRUPTION]

In that moment under the lemon tree in your backyard as a child, when you had a sense of wondernous ... oneness with everything around you and a sense of wonder. You interpreted that as a religious experience. Do you think you did that because you had been brought up Catholic?

I didn't put a religious label on it. But of course because I'd been brought up Catholic I was perfectly prepared to believe that there were wonders beyond common sense. I mean, in those days I was full bottle on guardian angels and I still think maybe there are. I'm very fond of Rilke's poetry and I'm sure there're spirits and presences that we know very little about, and they're not necessarily supernatural either. I just think, well, if you know anything about Aboriginal people and their culture, they know many, many things we don't know anything about. So I was predisposed to feelings of awe and wonder. And then of course, I had the language to ... it was ... particularly in my day there's a great deal that's good in that old tradition. There's a very profound sense of mystery with the incense and the praying chant and the processions. I think we've lost a great deal by tossing all of that out. So, I knew how to accommodate it and how to put words on it. And at school we had religion lessons and ... but you could equally say, and I concede that, that it's simply a ... a ... a natural human experience, and that doesn't worry me at all because I don't think there's anything odd about religion and being religious. It seems to me it's just a dimension of our existence that is rather extraordinarily repressed in our society and most of us, I think, are spiritually illiterate and that's a pity, because we all need categories to fit our experiences and if you don't have a category and you don't have language, then you're often not aware of what's happening to you.

Many people who were brought up Catholic have memories of violence and very nasty things happening to them in the school environment. Even those who didn't have bad experiences in the physical sense remember it as being limiting and repressive kind of environment. Did you have any bad experiences at all as a child going to school at a Catholic convent?

I did when I started school in this country convent. Now I'm sure they were good people, but A. they used to cane the children, and as I've said I've got a horror of physical violence.

Were you caned?

No because I was a good little girl and I took great care not to be caned. And then there were ... there were bullies in the playground. Some bully boys used to harness us little girls up and drive us around as a ... you know, whipping us and so on. I mean that's just normal thing, but I've always had a very very sheltered childhood and then also they used to borrow ... My father had a marvellous collection of art books, and the nuns were obviously poor, and they needed these books. They'd borrow them, and then say to me, 'I'm sure your father would like to give this book to us, wouldn't he?' And I'd go home and my father would tell me, 'Certainly not, tell them to return it'. And that was ... that was dreadful and then finally one old nun died once and all of the kids ... We came to Melbourne when I was nine so I was quite small then. We all had to file past and look at this waxworks in the coffin. Now, I mean it ... I don't have any fear of death but I just found that horrible. I did not like school. And as I say, I used to pretend to be sick and of course my parents knew I wasn't. They knew I didn't like school and anyway I think I did very much better at home reading and so forth. But from the moment I went to Loreto I loved every minute of school because the atmosphere was totally different, so I have been extremely fortunate. I mean, Catholicism for me has been empowering and positive and beautiful.

Did anybody in that very early convent that you went to do anything specifically cruel to you?

No, but just the atmosphere was violent and was authoritarian and, you see, I ... you can be inadequate to that. You need experiences of things, and as I said I can't cope with violence, I just can't. So, no, it just wasn't my cup of tea at all.

[end of tape]

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