A 'Righteous' Man
"Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all." - Aristotle
"By the time I got to go to boarding school in Toowoomba at age 12 I was always made to feel slightly second class because my father didn't drive a tractor."
- Fr Frank Brennan s.j. in an interview with ABC's Peter Thompson
by Kate Mannix
Sir Gerard Brennan, AC KBE, welcomes me into his office in Sydney's CBD, with its God's eye view of the city. Most would be aware of his role in ensuring that the common law of Australia recognised the prior land rights of Australian Aboriginal people via the Mabo decision, in 1992. However inside his profession Sir Gerard has also been acclaimed as a defender of the independence of the Courts from increasingly intrusive governments. He is, according to one eminent barrister, "one of the giants of Australian administrative law."
The former Chief Justice in person is mild, almost retiring. He courteously compliments Online Catholics for its attempt to provide space for other Catholic voices. Only later do I appreciate he has researched me just as I have researched him.
What must be understood about Gerard Brennan is the thoroughly Catholic character of the man. It is a character formed by the experiences of his generation growing up in central Queensland.
Born in Rockhampton in 1928, young Gerard was an altar boy who served Mass twice during the week and once on Sundays. "We were all religious kids," Sir Gerard says now. "Faith was a simple thing."
'Simple' means a life that is defined by faith. "We didn't question the faith; faith was life," Sir Gerard explains. "Faith was social as well as religious. As a child it contributed to a peaceful existence in which there was very little anxiety." Catholicism was the river in which the children swam back there in Rockhampton, in the 1930s. "There was real awe attached to the Sacrament. In fact belief in the Real Presence was so strong that it kept some men away from Communion," he says now.
In a sense a real hero of Sir Gerard's story is his father, Frank Tenison Brennan. While Sir Gerard rose from ordinary circumstances to become the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, he was the son of the Hon. Mr. Justice Frank T. Brennan (Supreme Court of Queensland, 1925-1949). But Frank Sr's father was a grocer. Frank T. Brennan became a solicitor, then a Labor Member of Parliament, and then a judge. "Although he encouraged me in pursuing the Law, I think my father would have liked me to go into politics," Sir Gerard says. "We were a family very interested in public affairs." Gerard was attached to both parents and recognized their achievement; but it is the father's vision which remains powerfully alive in the son.
So Frank Tenison Brennan's early and unexpected death in 1949 was the first great shadow in his life. "Those who knew my father loved him. People lined the streets at his funeral." By then, the family was living in Brisbane. There was little money. Gertrude Brennan coped by occupying herself with charitable activity at the Mater Mothers Hospital. Their children were distraught. "One sister was still at school, and the other was about to go nursing. I was 21 years old."
Religious tensions were less in Queensland than in some other parts of Australia, mainly due to the ecumenical outlook of Archbishop Duhig as well as the Anglican Archbishop Halse. In that environment, young Gerard began to discern what he now calls Christian values. Rather to my surprise, Sir Gerard defines Christian values as egalitarianism, tolerance and respect for conscience. Isn't this a bit of 'feel good socialism'? What about faith, hope and charity?
Sir Gerard may be a gentle old man, but you can see the energy rise up from his toes.
"Catholic means universal. Jesus invites all into the Kingdom of God. To him we are neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. We are all equally called. That is an egalitarian philosophy. So too are we called to treat others equitably.
"Tolerance is a virtue which is frequently misunderstood. It does not mean the toleration of evil but respect for people in all their diversity and different states of mind. Jesus welcomed Samaritans, the outcast and all those who are effectively 'untouchables'. Scripture records that He treats them all with respect and love, even those who do not thank Him for His healing touch."
"Respect for conscience protects the individual from excessive legalism because it affirms the right of the individual to be in direct relation with God. The Pharisees and Saduccees wanted to deny the individual conscience. Jesus asserts respect for conscience.
"Egalitarianism, tolerance and the respect for conscience are the practical manifestations of faith, hope and charity," his Honour says, firmly.
Fr Frank Brennan, sj, named after his grandfather, believes that his father's commitment to Christian ethics is the foundation for his life's work: "For me his real greatness was always in his absolute integrity, the extraordinary nature of his faith and his capacity to be able to see that the law had a role to play in enunciating justice, particularly for those on the edges."
Gerard Brennan was admitted to the Bar in 1951 and married Patricia O'Hara, a 2nd year registrar in anaesthesia and pathology, in 1953. "We met when Patricia was assistant secretary of the Newman Society. I was the secretary," he says. They have three sons and four daughters, who were born within a period of 10 years. Knowing Sir Gerard's career also required considerable periods of travel, I ask how Lady Brennan managed.
Sir Gerard has spent a life time in the law and speaks in reasoned, measured tones. However on one or two occasions during our interview he revealed quite strong emotions. This was one of them.
"Patricia has a wonderful mind. She is a deeply intelligent, gifted person. We wanted our family without question. She sacrificed her profession so that I could practise mine. She has borne the burden." Sir Gerard recognizes he has been the beneficiary of Dr O'Hara's sacrifice of her career. It is perhaps easier to see this truth when one is married to a woman with a large earning potential. But for the Christian, it is sacrifice itself that commands our respect, not the honours of high office or a specialist's income.
Dr O'Hara brought up their children and eventually undertook a role as medical officer for two institutions which cared for intellectually disabled children. (Their eldest son has also acknowledged Dr O'Hara's role. During an interview with Peter Thompson of the ABC, Fr Frank Brennan said of his mother:" I think she's a woman who's truly extraordinary. She is also a woman of very high intelligence. I remember once getting into serious trouble from a woman law professor because I'd given an interview pointing out that my mother was of course more intelligent than my father. This professor said to me that this was not the done thing because my father was a High Court Judge.")
I try to draw out opinions about contemporary politics. Sir Gerard resists, not due to any lack of strong opinion, but because he regards it as improper to comment on any matter which may come before his erstwhile colleagues on the Bench. Similarly, he does not want to talk about his eldest son's career or achievements: "We love him dearly and admire him greatly but we have six other children who are equally impressive in their own ways."
There is a strong strain of natural courtesy in Sir Gerard Brennan, the good judgement of the good judge. But at a time of detention centres, attacks on the minimum wage, aboriginal deaths in custody and the privatising of everything I try to push him just a little for a general opinion on the state of the society. You don't get to meet Sir Gerard Brennan every day, after all.
He relents, just a little. "Earlier we spoke of the fundamental Christian values of egalitarianism, tolerance and respect for conscience.
"I hope that Australia will not be transported by the pressures of interest groups but adhere to and celebrate those fundamental values which make Australia a free and confident nation."
And the role of the Church? "The Church should announce principles of morality and try to apply them to contemporary situations," he says. "And it should not permit itself to be inhibited from doing this by any extrinsic concern, whether political, financial or ecclesiatical," Sir Gerard says.
"But the Church has no role apart from that in influencing secular politics. It must admit the validity of a pluralist society," Sir Gerard believes.
It is one of the great privileges of journalism to have the opportunity for intimate conversation with remarkable people. What is part of our Christian story most inspires him? Which biblical character is he most influenced by?
Sir Gerard takes no time at all. "Joseph," he says.
Later, I look up what others have said about the character of St Joseph. Scripture refers to him as 'a righteous man'. Mary McKillop says this:
"St Joseph is the strong silent protector and guardian of the Holy Family as well as a model of humility, simplicity and obedience… St Joseph's humility was of the heart not of words. It was of the silent kind. It heeded not the esteem of men."
It might also be observed of Joseph that in casting in his lot with a pregnant teenager and her incredible story, he showed good judgement. When she and her inconvenient child were at real risk, he showed good judgement again, with determination and without fanfare.
Lawyers have, in many minds, developed a reputation for caution, prudence even hesitation. But life and faith have a way of making demands of just men, and a time comes when they must act. Joseph did.
There is much in Sir Gerard Brennan's character and experience, then, that reminds you of Joseph.
And he, too, married the right girl.