Pope's advice for Gillard and Abbott


Pope Benedict XVIWe expect our politicians to be engaged with the electorate, often assuming this equates to constant participation in public debate in the media. 

It’s as if there is a mathematical formula allowing us to measure their ‘cut through’ according to the total number of words they utter in public. That is, a greater number of different words, repeated frequently, amounts to more effective communication. 

On the contrary, it’s more likely that less words will engage people more effectively. Thomas Merton said in his 1956 classic Thoughts in Solitude that silence ‘teaches us to know reality’. He warned that words not informed by silence can ‘defile’ reality. That is certainly what underlies practices such as meditation and yoga, which help us to listen to silence so that we can connect with the world around us from the core of our being.

It was also the key point of Pope Benedict's World Communications Day message that was released last week. He said that silence and words are ‘two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance’ if ‘authentic dialogue’ is to take place. 

The Pope’s insight could usefully serve as advice to the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader from political strategists charged with explaining why they are failing to connect with voters.

‘In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others… we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.’

Applying this principle to political rhetoric, we might hope that punctuating words with silence will allow leaders to move beyond ‘Stop the boats!’ and other blunted and hollow mantras towards an understanding of the real fears and hopes of the Australian people. On this issue, there is little doubt that the weight of words has distorted and defiled reality.

The Pope refers to communication as ‘a kind of “eco-system” that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds’. These are the ingredients which, in right measure, could allow the hitherto elusive ‘real Julia’ to appear in time for the 2013 election.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Pope Benedict, Abbott, Gillard, rhetoric, silence, Thomas Merton



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Existing comments

Nice words from Benedict but it's too tempting to suggest that he takes his own advice and keeps silence on topics like homosexuality that he really has no experience of and on which he was recently waxing eloquent!
john bartlett | 30 January 2012

A great idea. Perhaps the constant talk that comes from the political sphere is something of a reflection and part of the unmeasured talk and activity that happens in culture generally. Many of us fear silence. It might follow that fearers of silence would be at least uncomfortable with those of us comfortable with silence. To be with silence is to be comfortable with it. A politician using silence without being comfortable with it may just be seen as using spin.
Andrew | 30 January 2012

The Pope's suggestion that words and silence should be kept in balance may be interpreted as meaning that we should listen to others as well as expressing our own opinions. But how can politicians listen if the rest of us lazily choose to sneer at politics and politicians instead of taking an active part in the process of government? Our ancestors won the vote and established the framework of democracy but, like a garden, good politics and government depend on widespread interest, appreciation - and continuing attention and work by non-politicians.
Bob Corcoran | 30 January 2012

Excuse me if I choose NOT to take any advice from Pope Benedict about communications ...
Tony | 30 January 2012

I have a question. Why has politics become so powerless? Sometimes shows of strength are necessary. The sight of our national leaders risking their lives to avoid the embarrassment - shows a real weakness in emotional security. I would have liked to have seen them be humble enough to call on more effective reinforcements to allow for safe passage through that excited group of violent protestors last week. Crucible-like calls for 'Goody Proctor', demanding blood, require extraordinary response to avoid colluding with the hysteria.
Louise Jeffree (nee O'Brien), Sydney | 30 January 2012

Indeed, there is a time to speak and a time to be silent and that is something our political leaders and their advisors need to recognise.
David | 30 January 2012

John Bartlett, your reaction was the same as mine - but it was not limited to the topic of homosexuality (I know Mr Bartlett mentioned it only as an example). We used to hear about "dialogue", now "public conversation" seems to be the buzz word to cover the exchange of facts, thoughts, opinions, judgements, prejudices between members of society, particularly between those in authority and those under them. Pope Benedict's church does not encourage either dialogue or conversation. The Curia has spoken, let the others listen like sheep. Should some sheep happen to baa back, depending on their status they will be either de-baa-ed or debarred. Bishop Bill Morris is an example that readily comes to mind.
Uncle Pat | 30 January 2012

Spare us please! The Pope talking about the benefit of silence? Well, he'd know I suppose, what with the official Seal of Silence the Vatican imposes on the outrages within its grubby ranks. We have to get over this notion that just because the Pope speaks, it does not mean he speaks with true wisdom, or honesty for that matter. One has only to look at the silence that surrounds Bish' Bill, or yesterdays 'sacking' of Father Bob, or the chap from Brisbane, you know, Peter Kennedy. Oh yes, silence is indeed golden, and very useful too, when hoping for no further trouble.
andy fitzharry | 30 January 2012

Good one Michael. Couldn't agree more.
MARIE BIDDLE RSJ | 30 January 2012

In his broad affirmation of the need for balance between words and silence, Pope Benedict is correct. We know this from our life experiences and from the various traditions of spirituality developed through the ages. The skill of course, is arriving at the balance. I recall that Bishop Morris described his attempt to dialogue with Rome on his pastoral issues, as a kind of a "one way traffic" experience. Popes Paul VI and JPII wrote at length about dialogue. This is a very important concept which embraces Benedict's balance but develops it powerfully (speaking AND listening). One of the problems we encounter in Church and society, is that too many want to speak and too few are willing to listen. One of the reasons for this is that we are afraid of ideas different from our own, so we just dismiss the different, or talk over it, resulting in no true dialogue. Behind this fear is also the fear of finding a true middle path, a compromise, which can enable both parties to the dialogue to realize that they can co-operate and both become better as a result Perhaps on next Communications day, we will see something from Rome about dialogue, conversation and growing together.
Garry | 30 January 2012

John Bartlett, does a person have to indulge in homosexuality (to use your example) to be qualified to talk about it?
Gavan | 30 January 2012

My wordy wordy, if only the catholic church could heed their own words. As a catholic I would like a hell of a lot more silence than the rhetoric of church dogma and its pronunciations. The hypocrisy of the message should not go unnoticed.
Michael | 30 January 2012

For more on Merton check out this website: http://mertonocso.wordpress.com/
74randy | 30 January 2012

Dear Editor, I am THOROUGHLY enjoying Eureka Street but it is taking up a lot of my time !
Caroline Jones | 07 February 2012

Talk is cheap. I'm sure the pope of the day had some good advice for Hitler too.
AURELIUS | 08 February 2012

To GAVAN: Does a person have to "indulge" in being black or Jewish to be qualified to talk about it?
AURELIUS | 08 February 2012

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