June 2018

Silence is golden – and it also kills

Sr Patty Fawkner SGS

Will we be loyal to the silence or will we interrupt the silence that has left many Catholics feeling disenfranchised within their own Church, asks Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

Silence is golden. Silence also kills. This is the key message in a recently published book by Walter Brueggemann, one of the most influential and respected Scripture scholars of our time.

In Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, Brueggemann gives many examples of how powerful people use silence to maintain their position of influence and control. He affirms those in the Scriptures who, as God’s agents, “interrupt” repressive silence and speak out against it.

Among others, he affirms the Hebrew slaves who speak out against the exploitation of Pharaoh, the Psalmist who laments, “How long, O Lord”, the Syrophoenician woman who dares to challenge Jesus, and blind Bartimaeus who disobeys the crowd who, in effect, tell him to “shut up” and stay permanently disabled.

Brueggemann invites, actually challenges, his readers to consider their own contemporary situation. He is blunt. You can either “interrupt” silence, or be part of the ongoing problem by maintaining an unjust status quo.

We know that Brueggemann is right. Enforced silence is the weapon of choice of oppressors, bullies and abusers. Think of the silence that for millennia has surrounded domestic violence. Think of Sister Patricia Fox who has been silenced by the threat of her deportation from the Philippines for speaking out against human rights violations.

And despite some who raise their voices, think of the silence within the Australian electorate that enables the Australian government to seriously mistreat people seeking asylum – including children – whose only ‘offence’ has been to flee persecution and arrive in Australia by boat without a visa. It is not illegal to seek asylum. Anyone who dares critique the government’s policy is labelled, and summarily dismissed, as being “soft on border protection”, and hence not to be taken seriously.

The last and final chapter in Brueggeman’s small book is called, “The Church as a silencing institution”. The Catholic Church comes in for particular critique.

Retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson said as much in his evidence during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He was scathing in the response of the Church hierarchy: “What we got was silence, so bishops were loyal to the silence”.

It occurs to me that the critical question that confronts us as we prepare for the 2020 Plenary Council here in Australia is, will we be loyal to the silence or will we interrupt the silence that has left many Catholics feeling disenfranchised within their own Church?

There are signs of hope. I recently attended a briefing by Lana Turvey-Collins, the facilitator for the historic Plenary Council. I found Ms Turvey-Collins upbeat but not naïve. She acknowledged the challenges of a Church rocked and disaffected by the revelations from the Royal Commission. She was aware of the scepticism about the potential for change, particularly felt by women, given the monumental disappointment in the wake of the comprehensive research project into the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, published 20 years ago.

Yet, Ms Turvey-Collins has faith in the process leading up to the Plenary Council 2020 which encourages all members of the Church community to engage in small group discussions “to speak about whatever they want to speak about from their heart and mind”. The focus, she said, is “open listening and dialogue”.

While there isn’t a specific theme for the Council, Ms Turvey-Collins said that processes and procedures were informed by a verse from the Book of Revelations: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”, or the shorthand, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying”.

I wish to have faith in this process as well, and will strongly encourage the sisters within my congregation and all I know within the Church community – the loyalist and disaffected alike – to engage in these conversation circles in preparation for the Plenary Council.

But what then?

After conversations at the local level, will the unfolding process be “loyal to the silence” by excluding topics such as contraception, mandatory celibacy, women’s ordination and same-sex marriage, from reaching the floor of the Plenary Council, even when such topics are raised in the preliminary dialogue sessions?

Will those who wish to raise such matters be de-authorised, the guardians of the process telling them that they, with such ideas and concerns, can claim no legitimacy within the Church, the same Church which had encouraged them “to speak about whatever they want to speak about from their heart and mind”?

Or will the 2020 Plenary Council “interrupt the silence” by listening to these concerns and give voice to the voiceless by inviting ‘non-elite’ Catholics, including women, divorced and remarried couples, refugees, former priests, the homeless, Indigenous peoples and members of the LGBTI community to have a consultative vote? Perhaps.

I hear mixed messages. One-third of the 204 voting delegates will be women. This is significant given that there were no women present at the most recent Plenary Council in 1937. Yet, – and I understand that this is because of the requirements and constraints of Canon Law – it is still only bishops who will have a deliberative vote.

I hear one archbishop saying that it can’t be “business as usual” for the Church, and another saying that “the purpose of a Plenary Council is not to change Church teaching or discipline”. But can we at least talk about the need for change?

Walter Brueggemann’s book and insights are potent when juxtaposed with the question being asked in the Plenary Council’s preliminary dialogue session, namely “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia?”

I do not know the mind of God. But Brueggemann would, I believe, say that God is commanding us to speak out and is asking us to listen to those who have been silenced within our Church. God is asking us to break the silence and act for inclusion and justice.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.