Writers’ festivals are places where aspiring and acknowledged literary luminaries often display their wares and take notes on the wares of others. The foreign editor of The Australian newspaper, Greg Sheridan, has been doing that recently, having just written a book. But during his rounds of such events, Sheridan was struck by an absence — the absence of any strong Catholic or Christian writers. “At each of these [events], there were earnestly devoted people who deeply believed in the new secular religions of environmentalism and identity politics, and there was not a single writer from the Christian point of view — about anything,” Sheridan told a recent dinner in Sydney.
He lamented the lack of Catholic literary luminaries of old, writers such as the late James McAuley and the venerable Les Murray.
The veteran journalist saw this as symptomatic of a Church on the retreat, a Church which has lost self confidence, a Church cowering in the face of sustained hostility from popular culture, the academy and from other external forces.
His prescription was for a Church to become a “bold, proud minority”, insisting on its rights, having spokespeople in the public square who are not afraid of being “controversialists”; spokespeople in the fashion of the late Daniel Cardinal Mannix, but who can master the arts
of modern communication.
It is a bold call, especially when, early next year, the Church in Australia as a whole is going
to have to face up to a further, final hearing from the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Being a self-confident minority with an assertive public voice in such an atmosphere and beyond is never going to be easy. The evil done was real. People were harmed. The reserves of public good will towards the Church were severely drained.
But one Catholic who seems to have no problem with expressing himself with vigour on the public stage is Pope Francis.
His vigour springs from his Jesuit spirituality, which strongly emphasises a deeply personal encounter with God. He also sees himself as a sinner, to whom God has shown great compassion, and as one called to follow and proclaim Jesus, who is love incarnate. But proclamation does not mean that communication is all one way.
As Francis said in his message for the 48th World Communications Day last year: “To dialogue means to believe the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective.
Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.”
Where there is goodwill, dialogue is possible. The same applies to the notion of “encounter”, another approach favoured by Pope Francis.
In the absence of goodwill, though, where there is only hostility, contempt or the imposition of ideology, such approaches become much more difficult. Where dialogue is not impossible, it should be worked towards. But sometimes a more forceful approach is called for.
Pope Francis, for instance, has spoken of an ideological colonisation, on issues like gender ideology, same-sex marriage and so-called reproductive rights.
The Pope, drawing on his Latin American experience of resistance to colonisation, has rightly criticised such a movement.
Maybe this is where Sheridan’s approach and that of the current Pope might find some common ground?