During the series of bushfires that has burned whole regions of Australia, at least 33 people lost their lives. Countless homes were consumed by the flames, and some experts fear entire species of animals might be lost. In addition, there’s also been flooding, hailstorms, dry lightning and red dust storms that turned Melbourne’s river the color of blood.
The images of the disasters, some have said, were “apocalyptic,” or as Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney puts it, “this is like Egypt in the age of Moses! It’s scary.”
Without minimizing the scope of the damage, the prelate told Crux on Friday that he sees some positive elements in the crisis, including the fact that the fires and the need to fight them has “brought out the best of people.”
Fisher is currently in Rome for the general assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which ended on Friday, and a meeting of the council of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place next week.
Fisher believes that what his country has experienced in the first month of 2020 “tells us loud and clear that we have to take very seriously what Pope Francis calls [protecting] our common home.”
“This is the only planet we have to live on, and we have to look after it, and if we mess it up, it can mess us up,” he said.
According to Fisher, these “shocking, extreme climate things” should make Christians think, “Am I making the best with the time that I have? Am I doing the best for the world, for humanity, for each other, for God?”
“If that’s how we react to the sense of this being apocalyptic, I’m fine with it,” he said. “If it leads us to say, ‘this is far from heaven, this is supposed to scare us,’ I say it should. It should shake us up and make things better.”
Fisher also shared with Crux his thoughts on possible topics for the next Synod of Bishops; about the role of women in the Church; and his uneasiness regarding the “false expectations” created by the synodal path began by the German church and Australia’s plenary council.
What follows is the first of a two-part interview with Fisher.
Crux: What brought you to Rome?
Fisher: I’m here for the plenary of the CDF. It happens every two years, all the members gather, and we go through a number of doctrinal and moral messes being considered by the Church. We get a report from all the bodies that report to the CDF - the International Theological Commission, the Biblical Commission, the section dealing with the Anglicans who have become Catholics, the section dealing with the Latin Mass, and the disciplinary section that deals with grave crimes, including above all child abuse - so we get the reports on that and discuss the processes around that.
It’s quite a wide range of things the CDF has responsibility for, and they are actually very good meetings, surprisingly. It’s a meeting where I think, you have something to contribute, you are heard and it’s achieving something.
Next week I have the council for the synod, which I was elected for at the end of the Synod for Youth, and the new synod council is organizing the next one. We don’t yet know what the topic of the next one will be, nor when will it be held.
Do you have any suggestions?
I think that, for cultures like my own, there is a huge question about how we position ourselves, propose ourselves in a post-Christendom world, that is secular, with an actual lot of hostility against the Church, disillusionment with the Church and even just boredom about the Church.
If it’s not to be the posture of Pope John Paul - very excited, enthusiastic, really, deep down everyone wants to be a Catholic, let’s just help them to see that - what is it to be? I think that to do some real thinking about how we can be the best Church we can be in post-Christian societies or societies that were once Christian.
That is obviously not of interest for some other parts of the world, so I understand why some would say it’s not a topic for a synod of bishops from the whole world. But probably any topic you choose is going to be more or less relevant to one culture than another.
I would also add that even in the more religious continents - Africa, Asia, South America - secularism is either well and truly at work or on the way. It’s going to be everybody’s issue at some point, if it’s not already. So, this is one possible topic that is on my mind.
Have you heard about topics being proposed already?
I have heard talk for synodality… A synod on synod seems to me a bit too referential. I always laugh about TV shows that are about TV shows. It’s like this kind of endless mirrors, and there would be useful things to say, but … A bit like some of the national synods that are happening, there is a great risk that it will all become inward looking. “It’s all about us, about our structures, in a language that almost no one else understands.”
Pope Francis often calls us to get out of the sacristy because there’s a whole world out there. I would be a bit wary about just being all internal stuff. Synodality is a very internal concern. But, as I said, there might be some useful things to say about it.
I think we have gone through different aspects of the life of the Church, like the Word of God in the life of the Church. But that one was looking out, not about what the translation should be like or other internal issues, but what do we offer to the world. I think the rest speak about the life of worship and sacrament, life of service and the poor. They would be looking at how do we do that better for the world.
We have all sorts of synod addressed to particular groups, like youth, priesthood, religious. And probably there are groups that we would like to reflect on. I have heard talk that some would be interested in having a synod on women. But I think that is very complex. For instance, if most of the people doing the talking were men, it’s a powerful countersign to what we are talking about. So how do you structure that in a way that is most remotely credible and helpful?
And I think all these Church assemblies have to be mindful of the risk of creating unreal expectations. This is an issue for the German synodal path and it’s also an issue for the plenary council in Australia. If you say to the world, everything is up for grabs, say anything you want to say, anything could happen; that is not true. We are recipients of a precious tradition, we have the revelation from God, not everything is up for grabs.
If you give people the impression that some proposals or changes are going to happen or could happen, but actually can’t or won’t, that would lead to more disillusionment at the end of that process. I rather we went down a more constructive line.
Are you worried that either the German synodal path or the plenary council in Australia are going to come out decreeing “we need female ordination”? Some among the Germans are openly saying that the Church is going to bless gay couples, or ordain women, when it’s not something they can determine …
My view on a thing like the ordination of women is that it’s actually a very complex theological argument. Because the issue is not just our view of male and female, but what is our view about the authority of tradition? And what is our view of the priesthood? What is in the priesthood box? And what might be shared or done better by others? We haven’t deeply looked into any of these yet.
There are several sets of things you need to look at quite deeply before you can answer the question about yes or no to the ordination of women. And I think that for a lot of the secular world, it is just a matter of saying “do you regard women as equal to men in terms of their dignity and moral worth?”
And if you do, you’ve answered the question [about ordaining women into the priesthood].
If that was the question, then my answer would be “yes I do.” But we haven’t begun to answer the question regarding the ordination of women.
Are you saying that regarding men and women with equal dignity is the wrong question to ask when discussing the ordination of women?
I don’t think we are at a place in history right now when we can treat this very fairly, do justice to the question and therefore to women, as well as men in the Church. I think that if you want to talk about women in leadership in the Church, we need to look to all the ways in which they already lead and serve. I would say, in my own country, our Church is hugely led by women. Let’s see if we are not valorizing, recognizing that sufficiently.
Where do people encounter the Church? In my country, that is mostly in two places: In the parishes, if people go to church, which most don’t; or they encounter the Church in their schools, where a lot of people send their children to our schools even if they don’t go to church. In general, our parishes are led by men and our schools are led by a woman. The leadership of our major institutions, it’s basically 50-50. If you then look into other places where people might meet the Catholic Church, like our social welfare services or our hospital and health institutions, most of were built by religious women, and women would be leading many of them today. I’m sure there would be some glass ceilings in some places, but they are there.
And then I would look into bodies within the Church, like our financial council, pastoral council… In my archdiocese a woman heads up communication, another the legal section, another the safeguarding professional standards section, a woman is my public engagement advisor, a woman heads ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, another religious life … It would be at least half of the departments.
My point is that I think women are already leading and serving in lots of ways, but that is not appreciated, recognized sufficiently, rewarded sufficiently. In different ways, people are still left feeling like they are second class or treated differently.
How much of that being left feeling like second class has to do with the fact that priests are overvalued as leaders?
Historically, they were. I think it’s rather less so now. Whatever cache or public respect came with the priesthood it’s significantly reduced, at least in cultures as my own. But it’s a bit like the question of the same-sex marriage thing. Part of what’s the issue there is that the only way we have a publicly recognizing, valorizing, and confirming a relationship is to marry people. People think then we have to have marriage, otherwise, we are not valued, loved and appreciated.
Something parallel is going on with the ordination of women. There is no other, obvious way of putting the title of “father, reverend,” or putting on special cloths and having very defined liturgical roles that would then appreciate and recognize the role of women in the Church. They then feel like they are not valued.
But maybe it’s not that they are not actually valued, but that we haven’t found the way of recognizing and proclaiming that.
All of this does not deny that there are parts of the world where nuns are being exploited by priests in atrocious ways, and there are I’m sure aspects of clerical culture, even in my own part of the world, that are misogynistic or discriminatory. I’m not pretending we are yet the kingdom of God: We are not.
But I think that if your big issue on women is, why are they not ordained … The average Catholic woman is worried about how to juggle their full-time job, full time family responsibilities, looking after their kids and also their elderly parents, while trying to maintain a few friendships and maybe a small amount of leisure time. And they think, can the Church help me to juggle with all this? Make it more manageable? I think that is a bigger concern for most of them than whether if they can be deaconesses.
A radical change of topic. What’s going on with the bush fires in Australia? We have seen some of it through the media, but how have you experienced it?
Living in Sydney, we are safe. It’s not going to come into Sydney. It could be in the peripheries of Sydney though. The Blue Mountains, which are the peripheries of Sydney, have had fires. But we have the smoke almost all the time. On many days through the summer, just living in Sydney was the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. My house is a few feet away from the cathedral, and somedays, looking out the window I could barely see it due to the thickness of the smoke. And the sun is bright red.
This has been really strange and in itself hurt a lot of people, particularly those with asthma and respiratory problems.
But I think it’s been good politically and culturally that it’s been this way. It’s easy for us to say that the fires are a long way away, or that nobody lives there. But you cannot say that when the fire is all around us. You have to take it personally. And I think it has helped to personalize it, the fact that it has been so close to the big urban centers.
Also, the media, one of the upsides of the modern 24/7 media cycle, is that you can’t avoid it. [What is happening is] in your face, all of the time. And people care. The result has been enormous efforts to save lives, to save properties, even though these have been the worse fires in the history of our country. The 33 deaths so far are terrible. But it’s less than what we’ve had in other fire seasons.
We have gotten much better at early warning, at evacuating people, using texting and social media, getting the news out fast, get people moving.
I think that, even though it has been terrible - we’re talking about 50 million acres burning, which is bigger than some European countries, and possible whole species of animals lost, buildings, and most importantly, 33 lives - we’ve worked really hard at saving people and their livelihood. And the efforts by charities and churches to give food, shelter, counseling, has been very impressive.
It’s terrible, but it has brought out the best in people too. We have had some rain, and just before I left, I had a big Mass for rain and at the end of Mass, the rain started, and it rained for a few days. I don’t think it rained because of my prayers, but because the entire country has been praying.
However, in some parts of the country it has gotten worse. In Canberra, the capital of the country, the fire is now inside the city, the airport has been closed down repeatedly. The last time we had fires in Canberra, we lost lives and many homes, so people are very worried.
We are not, by no means, out of the woods.
We also saw, through social media, that in some places there was flooding …
Some people have called it apocalyptic, and I have to say, it’s not completely unjustified: We’ve had fires, floods, hail, dry lightning, which is lightning coming from the sky but without any rain, something I had never seen before; red dust storm that made the river that runs through Melbourne turn blood color.
This is like Egypt in the age of Moses! It’s scary.
There are some Catholics out there who deny climate change and say, “Don’t worry, it’s not climate change, it’s the apocalypse, and we know that’s coming.”
I think that the evidence is overwhelming for climate change. I’m not as convinced as some might be that we know exactly why and what to do about it. But it’s here, staring us in the face. That that’s behind what’s happening with the extreme weather in Australia is not yet clear. There are some climate scientists who are warning, saying this could be an abhorrent year, and that we have to look for patterns over decades to make sense of climate change.
But, all that said, this tells us loud and clear that we have to take very seriously what Pope Francis calls [protecting] our common home. This is the only planet we have to live on, and we have to look after it, and if we mess it up, it can mess us up.
What I think is interesting with the image of the apocalypse about the end of time, or the echoes with what was happening in Egypt in the time of Moses, is the Christian sense of always having lived with the thought of the end being here.
We are all going to die, and we’re going to die soon. I’m about to go sixty and I’m feeling old suddenly. None of us is going to live more than a few more decades. So, to the extent that these shocking, extreme climate things have shaken us up a bit, make us think, “Am I making the best with the time that I have, am I doing the best for the world, for humanity, for each other, for God.”
If that’s how we react to the sense of this being apocalyptic, I’m fine with it: If it leads us to say, “This is far from heaven, this is supposed to scare us,” I say it should. It should shake us up and make things better.