|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: December 8, 1993
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
What do you think it's going to be like to die?
I nearly killed myself on a country road some years ago - skidded on loose gravel on a sharp bend, and one side of my brain did the right things and we went with the skid. I was very pleased with myself that I did all the right thing, and so the impact wasn't so bad. And the other side said, 'I'm going to die, isn't this fascinating?' I really was so fascinated by it, and a feeling of extraordinary happiness got hold of me. It ... I [am] prepared to think that it may just be physiological - that's the way the body protects itself, but in any case, if the resurrection happened, there is something more, and if God is goodness, then it'll probably be good. I mean, frankly, I have great difficulties with the notion of hell. So it certainly won't be the same, but I regard it as, well all the stories of paradise ... I mean Dante is one of my favourite, favourite authors and those descriptions of paradise that the angels [are] dancing, or the cosmic rose with the angels diving in and out of it as bees - it's just all very wonderful. So I live in hopes. If there's nothing, well, that's all right, but ...
What if there's hell?
Well, what if there's hell? I don't believe that the good go. I mean don't ... All right so it's probably one of the reasons: I'm a dreadful sinner. I don't think that I would go to hell, I hope not. If I did it would be a great surprise. But, you know, it's interesting, I'm not ... what will happen if I get a long lingering illness? Or what will happen when you actually face death is another matter, because I think again, the body reacts, and animals are afraid of death and I suspect that your body might be frightened of it, but I tend to be interested in things that are new and are different, so I hope I will keep on like that and if I'm true to what I believe, I believe there is something more and that God is infinitely forgiving and merciful. If we can make excuses for ourselves, well then I'm sure God can make excuses for people. So I hope it'll be all right and let's ... and as I get older now it's interesting me all the more and I think that's the most important thing you have to do in the last stage of your life ... is get ready for death by which I mean you go on doing the same things, but you're aware that things come to an end. You see, the thought that I have now that I'll be retiring soon, well that's the end of another phase of your life. So what's next? How interesting.
But you don't ... You said you had a difficulty with the notion of hell.
What sort of difficulty? Do you have a difficulty thinking about facing it or do you have a sense that if it were there you wouldn't go to it, or ...
No that, I believe that God is infinitely good and infinitely kind and merciful, and it seems to me that every human being ... that there's a spark of good in every human being, and there's an old teaching. I think Thomas Aquinas teaches this. At the point of death, every human being is given the choice to say yes to love. Now I know there's this also ... this fearsome ability that we have to say no to love and goodness, but I have a suspicion that if there ... and of course the official teaching of hell is that it's ... it's what you choose. It's the fact that you have said no to love. And so when you die you are what you are [there] for all eternity according to the ... this teaching. So that if you had turned in on yourself - this is Augustin's Homo Inclovitis In Se - the torment is to see all this beauty and this goodness and this joy, but not to be able to achieve it. But why ... why shouldn't ... If God is infinitely loving and if God wants everybody to be happy and fulfilled, why shouldn't everybody finally have some chance? I know some people have difficulties with people like Hitler, but you know many of these people were mad and ... and perhaps not entirely responsible. So personally I do not like focusing on the notion of hell, of a punitive God. I'm sure what is, is ultimately loving and wills good to all things that are.
So the fact that it's part of the official teaching of the church is like some of the other official teachings, ones that you can accommodate but don't share.
It's not necessarily part of the official teaching of the church. Well everybody says if you have got enough theology you can get out of anything. The official teaching of the church is that God is love, and that the death of Jesus has reconciled all of us in love because Jesus was utterly faithful to this God and kept on being faithful, and that everybody is potentially united with that love. So it's not heretical to say that. I say, it may well be, that some people remain turned in on themselves and therefore condemn themselves to whatever the torment might be. I mean, we've got no notion. What we do know is if there's a life after death, is it totally different, so we can't really talk about what's totally different.
You've said that the early church didn't have priests, and Jesus wasn't a priest and none of his apostles were ... were priests either. In fact, there was no priesthood in the early church. Do you sometimes think the church would be better off without the priests and the hierarchy?
Oh no, no. This was ... What I meant was that this was a community. They were people ... Originally of course, the ... Jesus and his friends were Jewish people so they used to have their meals together, the Eucharist meal together, but for at least a year or so they used to also go to the synagogue and fulfil their duties there, and of course Judaism, I think I'm right, also doesn't have a sort of official ... Oh yes, it does have a priesthood. Perhaps not now, anyway, but then as time went ... and there always was ... In that Christian community, there was a leader of that community who would celebrate the Eucharist with them, and some people, some scholars argue that sometimes those leaders were women. But as time went on and the Christian community grew, then these leaders had more of a full-time job, and then when authority began to collapse in the Roman Empire, those leaders were put into also an official authority role, and that accommodated itself to society. But the essential thing with the priesthood is still the fact that you are the leader of that community. You celebrate the meal of Jesus with his friends, and you also use his power of forgiveness and blessing and so forth, for the community. But it's become, as it were, full-time and then the church tended, as I say, to take on the colour of feudal society and then of monarchical society of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. And it's gradually changing, and there's a new movement to a more open and democratic society. The substance remains the same, but the forms, I think, are slightly different.
If women priests were allowed, would you have wanted to be a priest?
I ... You'd have to have the call, and I might have had the call, but I don't have the call now. I don't feel the call. So ... but, I mean, I ... I see no difficulty with it at all and I would have absolutely no difficulty with women priests.
If you'd been a priest do you think you would have been able to speak out on things the way you have?
Well as things are at the moment, certainly not, because the priests are part of that official hierarchy of the church and if a priest says ... expresses opinions, which his bishop or the papacy disapprove of, he can be dismissed or he can be silenced. So the priests are very, very vulnerable indeed, and one of the things about this new encyclical is that it ... it speaks very firmly to directors of seminaries where you train priests and said, 'There are certain ideas that you may not teach', and I find that very difficult indeed, and I presume if a theological professor did, he might be in danger of being dismissed. So I'm very sympathetic to priests. Other than that, I think outsiders don't realise, the Catholic Church may look totalitarian, but it is a really rather inefficient totalitarian society, and your beliefs are your beliefs, and the church is the environment in which God comes to you, and you are dependent on the sacraments for the special grace and power that comes to God, but for most of the rest of us ... I mean, see, religious women are lay women. We've got no official power, and I regard that as a great advantage.
Do you get a lot out of living with the community?
Yes and no. I mean, I ... I'm always inspired by the fact that though I am so different and such and oddball as many of them see it, there is this very great kindness and support and concern. And I think it's also a first class miracle that women can live together in this way with mutual trust and support. Of course sometimes I get irritated, and of course sometimes somebody rubs you up the wrong way, but the same thing happens in family. And I think it's marvellous if you go away and then coming back home is like coming back to your family. And you do have people who look after you and it's also ... put it at its most brutally practical, it is marvellous to come home at night and that somebody's cooked the dinner for you. I mean we do take turns over the weekend to cook Sunday dinner and I take my turn there, but I don't have to worry about doing the shopping. I don't have to worry. I keep my own room tidy and so forth but I don't have to worry about housework. I don't have to worry about paying the bills, so it's ... it's no wonder I get through as many things as I do because everything is cleared for me. And it also means that I'm free to enjoy my friends. In many respects, to me it's a great thing. And one of the nice things again about our community, we like to talk about as a community of friends. And it's good when you move around and meet people that you've lived with in the past and meet old friends. It's also true of course that, when ... in a marriage or in any other sort of relationship you choose the people you live with. Now we don't. People are sent, hither and yon by the Provincial, though they're consulted. So sometimes you find yourself living with people you would not normally choose to live with, but as I say, we manage to get on, which is most extraordinary and most peculiar.
What do you feel you contribute to the community?
I think I sort of spark everybody up, and I ... you know, probably I frequently irritate people, and when I cook I'm a pretty good cook. And then I toil in the fields and I contribute some money. I'm one of our few breadwinners. And I hope I contribute my presence, but I'm not like ... I mean some people are here all the time and they ... well when I'm home I answer phones. I mean they make a more positive and actual contribution, but you see again it's like this ideal of communism: from each according to ability and to each according to need. But it might be interesting to ask the others what they think I contribute, and they mightn't think it's ... it's very much.
Changing subject now. Did you know Patrick White very well?
Not well, no. But I was extraordinarily privileged in that he ... he certainly liked the things I wrote about him, and he frequently said, 'Yes, that was ... that was really the way to look at things'. Now that may not be that I was right of course, because we all know you have to read the text in your own way, and any time I came to see him he was very kind to me and once upon a time, when the ABC asked him if they might do a radio interview with him, he said yes, providing I was the interviewer. Now I don't think I'm a very good interviewer. That's why I admire your skills. But, that ... that did make a difference I think. And see, I never knew him well enough to fight with him and he always had this admiration for ... for nuns, so I would rather ... that was a very privileged thing and I didn't meet him often at all.
Why do you think he had an admiration for nuns?
Because I think he ... he ... He was an immensely complicated human being, and an angry human being, and a hurt human being, and sometimes a very destructive human being. I think he was probably fascinated by what he saw as innocence. You remember at the end of the Aunt's Story. There's a moment when there's an image of a nun in full regalia virtually dancing through the streets in Chicago, and I think that notion of somebody who is innocently joyous was immensely appealing to that complicated man that he was.
You say that in some ways you regret the passing of certain traditions of the church, even though you've been someone who's been in some ways anti-sticking to traditions for their own sake. You talk about the nun in full regalia. Some people feel the great loss that the nuns aren't dressed in the traditional way. I suppose it's a romantic thing, wanting people to look like that. What do you feel about that whole question?
Of dress, you mean?
Of dress, and tradition.
Well look, I think I'm ... personally I regard myself as a good old fashioned Tory in many respects. I think tradition is wonderful and as you can see many of my theological ideas, and my religious and scriptural ideas, are part of a sense of what the tradition was in the past and how that tradition has developed, and I'm a very very great admirer of Newman and his notion of the development of doctrine, and I'm much addicted to the good what we used to call the Oz tradition of fair go, although I now realise it didn't include Aborigines. As far as religious dress is concerned, it seems to me it's ... what we're dealing with there is a question of symbolism. And the question is what it symbolises. And if it symbolised the fact that it did make us look as if we were a special species of human being, and black of course is the colour of mourning, and being swathed from head to foot did say that there were certain anxieties about the body, and above all of covering your hair and covering your head. That didn't seem to me to symbolise really what we were all about. In fact, if you think about tradition the way we used to dress in our particular order, we didn't have the most extreme headgear. It was widows dress in the Seventeenth Century. So originally, nuns were dressing the way everybody else dressed around about them, but that thing became fixated. And I certainly used to find when I was teaching in university or other times to, that people felt very uneasy, unless they were Catholics. Catholics can cope with priests and nuns, but people would feel very uneasy and think heavens, what's this? You know, is it a penguin? So I was very happy when we could dress more or less as other people did. I think we've still got to dress simply. Of course I think it's awful if we just spend lots of money on clothes, but to me it was the appropriate symbol that I'm not a special kind of human being. I am a human being and I live in a particular sort of way. I belong in society. I like friends and I like this world. Now some sisters felt it very distressing. They sort of identified with that special garb and felt that it made them somehow special and they thought they got some sort of special respect. Well those aren't things that mean anything much to me, and I frankly identify myself by who I am inside, not by what I look like, which is just as well since I'm no great beauty. And, you know ... So I don't care about those externals and I really ... I don't particularly want people to respect me. If anyone respects you then you have to earn it. Your not going to get it by being dressed in a special sort of way. So I took to it the way a duck takes to water when we took off veils.
You're criticised for speaking up ... [INTERRUPTION]
You were criticised for sticking up for homosexuals. Homosexuality is one of the reasons why some people are for getting rid of the notion of celibacy among priests, because it's quite an issue among priests. Is it an issue at all for the sisters?
Not as far as I know. No. I know a lot of people talk about it and I do know, in my lost youth there used to this extraordinary bigoted Protestant paper called The Rock. And it used to be ... I used to buy it particularly when I was a student. I used to love it. It was full of these dreadful stories about nuns having babies by priests. That no ... oh yes, and then there was a general view that the nuns were lesbians but to the best of my knowledge that's not so. It may be. And I happen to think sometimes that, I mean, there's some evidence that there's a genetic or a biological factor, which makes some people homosexual and some people heterosexual, just as it makes some of us celibate. So for the life of me I can't ... I can't feel that it is necessarily or innately wicked, and that is probably something that is ... that some people would regard as heretical.
If we started having married priests, would you, could you imagine a situation in which there might be homosexual priests?
There are homosexual priests.
But practising it openly.
I suppose there could be, but I don't think ... That would take a very, very, very long time given the attitudes of the Catholic community in Australia. And I mean, I think it's ... I, again, while I will defend the dignity of homosexual people, I couldn't possibly say that it's wicked necessarily. Who knows what's wicked? I do think that sometimes there's been a vogue and a fashion that some people, who aren't really gay, just want to show everybody how clever they are and how wicked ... you know, how different they are. So you know, I wouldn't ... I wouldn't say, 'Just because you're homosexual everything is necessarily okay', and I ... but I also think it's the case ... Since Australian society tends to be rather brutally macho, I think some young men are more or less driven to be gay because they're too gentle to cope. So again, I don't really believe in pronouncing whether other people are doing right or wrong in their own conscience. I believe only God knows. And I believe that in Australian society many gay people have been in the past, and still are, very badly persecuted. They certainly are in this city. And therefore it seems to me extraordinarily important to have a sense of compassion.
Not as persecuted as Aborigines.
So could you tell me some of the ways, in which you observe, that we still today treat Aborigines badly?
Story one: coming to pick up a car I was driving, coming home from the city in a park in Northbridge, a park which in fact used to be a famous place for white men, who came and had sex with Aboriginal girls. One evening four Aboriginal men sitting harmlessly, as far as I could see, on a park bench. They were not drinking. As far as you could see they were not drunk. They were sitting there talking. A police car drove across that park and dispersed them. Example two: this happened to a friend of mine. An old Aboriginal man standing, waiting for the lights to change in the city. A policeman came up and put his arm on his shoulder and said, 'You're coming with me along to the police station'. And she was, a brave woman, said, 'Just a minute, you know, what's the charge?' He more or less told her to get lost and she persisted and said, 'Yes I want to know what the charge is and I'll come with you to the police station to make sure'. The policeman then walked off. Example three: Aboriginal friends of mine who are middle class Aboriginal people drive a shabby old car. Why? Because the police constantly stop them and accuse them of stealing the car. Example four: another Aboriginal friend had an appointment with me and when I got to work there was a message to say she couldn't come. Why? Because her little grandson was being bashed up on the way to school so she had to go and pick him up. Example five: a really horrific scene in one of the outer suburbs in Perth some years ago. It was a hot summer's night and some middle class Aboriginal people had just moved into that area and bought houses and the white people of the district were doing everything they could to drive them out: tipping rubbish into their houses, shouting abuse at them, the children were fighting at school. And these people called a public meeting to ask the white people what they had to do to be accepted and they had a white lawyer, who ran the meeting. And those people, most of the ... the whites, I regret to say by the sound of their voice, were from the North of England, and of course from their point of view their property values had gone down because blacks had moved in. But those black people had to sit and hear the most foul things said about them: that they were all drunk, that they were no-hopers, that, you know, they were all stupid, they were stone-age. They had to take that morning, noon and night. Another example: another Aboriginal friend I have, who has not merely an arts degree but she has a law degree, and she was married to a very distinguished Australian. I won't name anymore, she might be recognised. She goes back ... she was taken away from her family as a child because she had white blood in her, and she lives in a remote town. The family actually ... it's a mining town where the family live. It's near the rubbish dump where all the chemical tailings are lying about. And she still goes back to visit the family and she loves them and that's wonderful. Whenever she goes there, and she doesn't drink, the police always stop her and breathalyse her. Another example: the Aboriginal writer, Robert Dixon, whose mother was Aboriginal; his father was one of these unfortunate poor English orphan migrants, who had four children with her and then he couldn't stand the taunts from his mates for being married to a boong as they charmingly call them in this state, and left. And that mother struggled, but she couldn't ... she couldn't keep those kids and the kids went off to a reformatory and from there it was to prison. And that kid was in prison from the age of sixteen to the age of twenty-four. He's now a fine poet. When he talks about that mother of his, you know, awful, awful, awful stuff. Another example: in a dreadful racist town in the south-east, where one of my very best friends in the community lived in a tiny little cottage, which is a drop in place for Aboriginal kids, I have seen yobbos come out of the pub and get into their ute and drive straight at Aboriginal children playing in the streets. Well, you know, need I go on? They are ... I mean we know about the figures for deaths in custody, we know about the Aboriginal imprisonment rate in this state. You know, you've read I'm sure as I have, that report of the royal commission, that the ... the story of those people who died in prison. Well I think the worst one is the child who first went to prison at the age of fourteen for stealing four bottles of milk. Another one for stealing three blocks of chocolate. Another one, the worst one I think, for breaking into the schoolroom and stealing some coloured pencils. That was the start of their criminal career. There's not ... there's hardly an Aboriginal male who's not been in prison in this state. They're just fair game.
Some people in Western Australia say that you're obsessed with this subject.
Yes, I am.
Do you think that's true?
I think it is true, because since I've got to know Aboriginal people, I just ... I find it excruciating to think ... I mean all this land ... I mean even as a child I used to think, all that land was theirs once. Again that's thanks to my father. He read us a book called, by Frank Dudley Davidson about Children of the Dark People. I mean, nowadays I'm sure it wouldn't be regarded as politically correct, but it took Aboriginal culture seriously and I used to think, fancy, that was all theirs once. So that was odd - and just other human beings being treated like that. I find that awful.
What voice are you giving to it now?
I can't ... I don't know what I can do. I do, fortunately, I was ...
Can't you write to the paper?
They don't publish my letters and I probably don't write good letters now because I've got so obsessed and they think, there she goes again. And I protested against the coverage of Aboriginal affairs to the press council. And well I think the positive thing that I'm doing at the moment is I was asked last year if I would teach a course in Aboriginal writing. Until then, I hadn't done it because I'd thought that it was not appropriate. Many ... some academics at least, make careers out of Aboriginal culture, and we've done quite enough to them without making profit for ourselves out of it. But when I was asked by the Aboriginal people on campus, and they said, 'Look, we haven't got anyone else who can do it and it's important', I did it. And the books that we teach are the ones that they recommended and I consulted with them, and I had two Nyungah women in that course and one of them was kind enough to come back and act as our resident expert and we paid her, of course. I think I'm doing something there. It certainly has an impact on the students. And one of them actually was a lawyer, who worked for a mining company. Just ... see most in Australia, we ... Our education does not educate the imagination. Most of us have very little ability to feel what it's like to be somebody else, and when you read this writing and you see what it's like to live on the other side of the frontier, it has an astonishing effect. At least I find that. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
In speaking about your faith, you sometimes sound a little sceptical. You say if the resurrection is true, if God exists, if all of this happened ... Are you a little doubtful about it?
Not really, but it's part of the problem of having a mind which has been trained in our sceptical and Enlightenment tradition, and even as a child in school I always thought that these arguments for the existence of God, which went, if you came upon a watch you would say, 'A h, somebody must have made it. Therefore, if you come upon the world, you say God must have made it'. Well I never thought that the world was like a watch. I think if God means what I think God means as something totally mysterious, it is beyond our ability to prove or disprove. You can prove or disprove the fact that water's H2O, but there are certain sorts of realities which are beyond proof or falsifiability, which is of course why many of the linguistic philosophers that talking about God is nonsense, but you see I happen also to be trained in the literary tradition. And I ... I also happen to be an admirer of Kierkegaard, who says you've got to make the leap of faith. You can't prove or disprove it. I jolly well hope it's true. I think all of the evidence suggests that it is true, and I think it's certainly true if we lived as the Scripture says we ought to live, it'd be a very much better world. But as I say, I'm an admirer also of Pascal's Gamble. Because you cannot prove or disprove that God exists, and there's nothing rationally that contradicts it, but you can't say there it is, QED. You have to make a gamble, and I've staked everything that I believe in on the fact that it is true, but I can't be certain, so I have to say, 'If it's true'. Because the resurrection is a very peculiar thing. Somebody who was dead was suddenly not dead and was raised up into new life. So if you've got a mind that's been trained to be sceptical you have to say that, and some people think that if you doubt or if you've got some scepticism, that means you don't believe. My own view is that if you don't have some kind of scepticism, you really don't understand what you are believing in. Of course it is pretty incredible, isn't it? I mean, I think you can historically prove that somebody called Jesus Christ existed, and the whole show does hinge on whether or not the resurrection happened, but you can't prove it. I also like to think that it could have been disproved at the time, but it wasn't. So the thing's hypothetical and that doesn't worry me at all. But I think you must be intellectually honest and say, 'Well, look chums, it's not the kind of proof that you can get for a mathematical proposition'.
You say that you were pleased when the Scriptures became more central out of Vatican II, that was one of the ,.. one of the advances, do you feel ... What do you think about the role of the Scriptures?
Well a lot of fundamentalists say that thing is certain, and I think it's perfect nonsense to say that Scriptures are the same thing as contemporary history. They're not. Of course, the Bible is a whole collection of many, many, many, many different kinds of books. They're literature, and of course literature has its own kind of truth, but it's not this verifiable kind of truth, and ... and certain parts of Scripture are more central and more important than other parts of Scripture, and this is the whole business of scriptural scholarship: to find out what may in fact reflect what was historically the case, [and] what may reflect a myth. Though I mean I will always point out that I think myths always express something which actually was the case. There was something there at the beginning. But you can't take it as literally true. And not every part of the Scripture has exactly the same status. There's some fundamentalists who play the Little Jack Horner Game: they put in a thumb and pull out a plum and say, 'This is what I want', and they forget about everything else. When you learn to read a particularly true text, any particular image or any particular incident is relative to the structure as a whole. And I think that's true with Scripture, and then there's also the fact that, as a Catholic, I believe that your understanding of Scripture is also assisted and sometimes corrected by tradition, that is the believing faith of the community over thousands of years, which has tended to stress some aspects and not others.
So you feel that with the Scripture you have to do your own thought and interpretation, and put it into context alongside the tradition of the church, and so on. What about the statements of where the Pope has declared certain statements to be infallible? The two that he's ...
Well they're not ... they're not scriptural.
So do they have higher status?
They don't believe Scripture alone is the authority.
So do they have a higher status than Scripture?
No, they're part of the belief, the faith of the believing community. And I also I don't think that I have to work out every little bit of Scripture. It's the same thing you don't have to go around reinventing the multiplication tables. That's one of the important things about worship, is that your clergy are, you hope, scholarly in this area and that when you come together the Scripture will ... he'll break open the Scripture open for you as he breaks the bread, and share that. And I like to keep up my reading in all of these areas. So there are experts, people who've been professionally trained in this whole area. I think ... I don't think I'm being arrogant when I say that I have a literary training and perhaps I would probably be better able to be attuned to scriptural scholarship than some other people would, but I'm not trained in that sort of way. And of course most things you take as part of the faith of the believing community.
[end of interview]