Moral teaching that falls on deaf ears

21 Comments

Screenshot of Bishops Conference Statement

At a time when we are preoccupied with the shock of the budget, and Scott Morrison has been seeking to justify his proposed Australian Border Force, a recent media release from the Catholic Bishops seems to have passed with little or no notice from the mainstream media. It is hard to recall such a strong and direct call by the Catholic Bishops on our politicians on a matter of major public policy.

On 8 May, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released a statement on asylum seekers which pulled no punches in terms of its evaluation of the policies of the present Coalition and former Labor governments. The language was to the point, tough and desperate in tone. It spoke of human rights being 'seriously violated', and of making an 'urgent plea for a respect for the rights of asylum seekers.'

The word which is often repeated is 'cruel/cruelty'. The current policy displays 'a cruelty that does no honour to our country’. It notes that our politicians 'are not cruel people', but 'they have made decisions and are implementing policies which are cruel’. In desperation they call out, 'Enough of this institutionalised cruelty’. While acknowledging the desire to 'stop the boats' (to use the Coalition slogan) they ask, 'Does this require such cruelty?'

In their analysis of the underlying causes for the current policy settings, the bishops again pull no punches. Referring to our past policy of 'White Australia' they acknowledge not only 'a xenophobia in us but also a latent racism' in our society. In this regard they could easily have pointed to recent efforts by the Attorney General Senator George Brandis to repeal sections of the anti-discrimination legislation, a move that has raise concerns with a number of ethnic groups in Australia. There is a real fear that the ugliness of racism will once again raise its voice. 

Noting also the relative wealth of Australia as a nation, they also claim, 'There may also be the selfishness of the rich' in our refusal to recognise the claims of refugees and asylum seekers. Here again we find the present government seeking to send asylum seekers to Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest nations rather than accept our international responsibilities to asylum seekers. 

They conclude their statement with a 'call on parliamentarians of all parties to turn away from these policies, which shame Australia and to take the path of a realistic compassion that deals with both human need and electoral pressure.  We call on the nation as a whole to say no to the dark forces, which make these policies possible.  The time has come to examine our conscience and then to act differently' (emphasis added). 

Of course the argument is made that the policy is saving lives by discouraging boats from undertaking a perilous journey that puts lives at risk.  But such a justification amounts to ends justifying means. Undoubtedly it is laudable to seek to save lives, but if the means to do so requires a serious violation of human rights and the imposition of a harsh and cruel system of indeterminate detention in remote settings, then the moral calculus shifts. We are not responsible for the moral decisions of others, but we are for the ones we make and the cruelty we impose. 

The bishops are saying directly and forcefully that the current policy implemented by these politicians is immoral. 'The time has come to examine our conscience and then to act differently.' But it seems no-one is listening!


Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, a member of ACU's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry and a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Asylum Seekers, Federal Budget, Australian Bishops, moral authority

 

 

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With acknowledgment to the original piece, I offer here a loosely paraphrased and hyper extended analogy from physical asylum to sexual asylum with which I indulge the concurrence of the author. At a time when we are preoccupied with the shock of the Royal Commission, George Pell seeking to justify his Melbourne Response and to a lesser extent the Towards Healing Program, provides ample media releases from the Catholic Bishops who seem since to have passed with little or no proper notice from the mainstream media. Within the Sydney Royal Commission, esp, Case 8, the language was to the point, tough and desperate in tone, esp. by those responding to McClellan, such as the Caseys. It spoke of human rights being 'seriously violated', of making amends and future respect for the rights of all victims. The words which were often repeated were of acknowledged callousness and cruelty. Clearly the RC showed that current Catholic policy displays a cruelty that does no honour to its constituents, its members, indeed to its very representation. It notes that priests are not intentionally cruel but take leave to make decisions and implement policies which are cruel to those who are disempowered. Who cannot argue or protest? In desperation they call out, 'Enough of this institutionalised cruelty’. While acknowledging the desire to 'stop the abuse' they ask, 'Does entrenched hierarchy and privilege and status require such cruelty?' In their analysis of the underlying causes for the current policy settings, the bishops acknowledge in part a blatant sexism and patriarchalism in our secular and Catholic society. Noting also the relative wealth of the Church in Australia as a nation, they also claim, 'There may also be the selfishness of the rich' in our refusal to recognise the claims of victims both adult and child.’ We must call on all Catholic hierarchy of all leanings to take the path of a realistic compassion that deals with both human need and pastoral / institutional pressure. Of course the argument is made that the current policy is saving men to the priesthood, saving their lives by discouraging all otherwise else to join asunder lest they too take the perilous journey that puts lives at risk. Power swaying is after all, none other than other swaying or per suaing of assuaging powerless into nebulous, no strings attached relations. Undoubtedly it is laudable to seek to save spiritual lives but if the means to do so requires a serious violation of human rights and the imposition of a harsh and cruel system of indeterminate detention in settings isolated from friends and family, no discussion, no necessary contact, then the moral calculus shifts. 'The time has come “priests”, to examine your conscience and then to act differently.' But it seems no-one is listening!
Jennifer Herrick | 21 May 2014


It is a very sane and balanced statement, Neil and discusses moral issues, which is the province of the bishops. This is the sort of statement which could start that sensible discussion on asylum seekers we as a nation need to have. My only thought is that perhaps the Communications Director of the Bishops' Conference, or its Secretary, Fr. Brian Lucas, who is media savvy, need to get onto their contacts in the industry.
Edward Fido | 21 May 2014


Overall, even the Catholic weekly and monthly diocesan newspapers let the Bishops down. They gave very little space to this story.
Mick Sullivan | 21 May 2014


Jennifer Herrick's response is well-stated and quite relevant to Neil Ormerod's observation that no-one is listening to Catholic bishops. Jennifer points out how slow, reluctant the hierarchy has been to acknowledge that clergy have sexually and physically abused the young and the vulnerable, how measly have been the offers of support and compensation. At the same time the mainstream media have been very ready to report it all. Everyone now "knows" that Catholic clergy are not to be trusted. True, there are some of other denominations who have committed similar crimes, but it is the Catholic clergy we focus on. So, when our bishops rightly point to a glaring cruelty and injustice in another sphere, the treatment of asylum seekers, no one wants to know. I have heard those who care about the asylum seekers issue asking why the churches are so silent. Why don't these religious people, who claim to care about justice, speak out? In the public arena it seems the church is silent, has been silenced. Jennifer Herrick points out how that silencing has come about.
Janet | 21 May 2014


It is very heartening to read that the Australian Catholics have taken such an unequivocal, and such a public, position on the cruelty the Australian government has adopted as the hallmark of its policy on this issue. Neil, I'd like to be able to absolve our politicians as comfortably as you do with your assertion that they aren't cruel people in spite of the institutional cruelty they have employed. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...
Joe Castley | 21 May 2014


Hebrews 13:3 :- "Don't forget about those in prison. Suffer with them as if you too were in chains." Could Australia be in a state of mortal sin?
Gauvain Smith | 21 May 2014


I present the Evening Show on 891 ABC Local Radio in Adelaide, throughout SA and Broken Hill and I was very interested in the Bishops' statement and made several approaches to one of the Bishops who repeatedly declined to come on air.
Peter Goers | 21 May 2014


I would love to see all the Catholic papers / magazines, Catholic Talk, Xt3 and CRADIO getting right behind this statement and promoting it for all they are worth.
Sandie Cornish | 21 May 2014


Just to note, Joe Castley, it is not me absolving our politicians but the bishops' statement. I agree with you!
Neil Ormerod | 21 May 2014


Christ clearly separated Christianity and politics in his exhortation, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's". Matt. 12:17. It is no surprise that the laity pays no attention to the Catholic bishops in their proclamations on morals when we have not heard a peep out of them on matters such as abortion and euthanasia amongst the multitude of other immoralities associated with the modern Western world, and notably the sexual abuse scandal. They are obsessed with the socialist politics of social justice despite three popes and Vatican II cautioning against such participation in their teachings on social justice. (Rerum Novarum, 1891, Pope Leo XIII, Quadrigessimo Anno, 1931, Pius XI, Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI, Vat II, and Pope John Paul II who said the poor and disadvantaged "should not be helped by participation in partisan politics", referring to the 'social justice' of liberation theology which he soundly condemned.) Its about time the bishops returned to being true pastors of Christ's flock and set about the job of repairing the Church, something they have avoided for far too long. More time in pastoral work rather than in talk festivals of no importance and directed guidance for the plethora of objectors and self-appointed reformers of the Church in the public sphere would be welcome. Perhaps even some instruction in basic Catholic teachings mightn't go astray. No one is listening anymore. The bishops as a public authority are becoming irrelevant despite the fact that amongst the "official" conference there are some wonderful men who have so much to offer and are rarely heard in their parish churches where their people, "the Church" were once to be found but, increasingly , no more. Very sad. Same applies to the interference in the politics of Timor Leste as described in today's ES.
Name | 21 May 2014


That is very interesting and not surprising to hear Peter. The pattern is : 'say what we have to say under controlled circumstances but avoid at all costs dialogue or extension beyond the original controlled linguistic environment'. The RC has shown us clearly that words were publically said about future different paths to be taken whilst down the street in the more private but still public courts the utter opposite is occurring, with old paths still being trod. One cannot rely on controlled language. Only when dialogue which involves listening as well promulgating occurs will credibility be winched back. No matter the topic. This is the sad fact. Asylum seekers, of all variety, have lost even well intentioned advocacy by those unable to show their face in dialogue beyond their controlled environment.
Jennifer Herrick | 21 May 2014


"But it seems no-one is listening!" Why on earth could that be? Jennifer Herrick supplies one answer. People mostly don't want to listen to hypocrites. Are the bishops really serious? Has this letter been given to every child in every Catholic school (including the ones for the wealthy elite) to be taken home, signed as read by the parents, and returned to the schools? Come on, they're not even trying.
Russell | 21 May 2014


Fr Frank's article was heartening. This one, with its comments, is disheartening.
Gavan | 21 May 2014


The statement from the Bishops is indeed utterly sound and compelling, and deserves wide airing and heeding. But surprise that it falls on deaf ears? Apart from the fact that a great increase in religious diversity in Australia is bound to reduce its appeal to some extent, the Australian bishops have never learned to use the media effectively- and it would appear that Peter Goers difficulty in getting a bishop to come on air reflects the fact that that syndrome is alive and well. But above all - the implication behind Jennifer Herrick's piece is clear - no -one will listen because the bishops have burnt their moral capital over the sexual abuse issues, and many still don't get either the reality or the significance of that. It's not the priests- the vast majority do get it, while bearing the brunt of the sins of the minority- it is the bishops that even the faithful have lost trust in. Meanwhile, concerned laity lack an adequate forum except as individuals or very small groups.
Dennis | 21 May 2014


Yes Jennifer,"entrenched hierarchy, privilege and status" and " the selfishness of the rich" do inhibit individuals and institutions from clear decision making and can even resort to cruelty and injustice. Keep on writing Jennifer your thought provoking responses.
Celia | 21 May 2014


Jennifer, that says it all. What a knockout punch. But I wonder whether any of the bishops will be listening? I learnt from the Catholic Church's web posts about the Melbourne abuse enquiry that it was all about self - justification for the church. They had to have their noses rubbed in it.
Frank S | 21 May 2014


While I am pleased to see the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference statement on asylum seekers, I fully support Jennifer Herrick's comments as valid concerns shared by many of us Catholic laity about the public face of our bishops.
Ian Fraser | 22 May 2014


#One applauds the enthusiastic support of ES for the Bishops most timely Statement on asylum seekers, #The enthusiasm far surpasses public concern for millions of globally hidden asylum seekers in wombs rejected for citizenship.and seeking asylum from threatening multitudinous instruments: http://abortioninstruments.co/new_index.html#instruments Not forgetting other non-PC RC magisterial statements, responsa and encyclicals
Father John George | 24 May 2014


Lack of Moral Capital – What a Knockout Punch. So heartening to have such positive feedback to my asylum analogy. Awareness raising is the key. We all can play a role. One way we can do that is for laity (who expect that none of their own should ever need to face the need for sexual asylum from their priests), keep an eye on what is actually happening in the Courts. Its public knowledge. There you can learn just how many victim cases, of all ages and gender, are still facing the Ellis Defense despite ALL that was stated by so many Church personnel from Cardinal to Business Mangager in Case 8 of the RC. Abuse itself you see thrives on public vs private. So too its defense. It is insidious. Dennis, yes, the bishops and priests in general (but not all, an isolated have few have spoken out) have burnt their moral capital over the sexual abuse issues, and many still don't get either the reality or the significance of that. But I would qualify your statement that it is “not the priests- the vast majority do get it, while bearing the brunt of the sins of the minority- it is the bishops that even the faithful have lost trust in”. Firstly we have no stats on what priests do when no-one is taking account. My own experience is that I have to reverse the normal assumption. But also I want to note that Bishops are priests. So my usage of the word priest includes bishops. Beyond this you make an extremely good point Dennis that “concerned laity lack an adequate forum except as individuals or very small groups”. This needs addressing by such as ourselves. Indeed, Ian Fraser can see this when he writes that these are valid concerns shared “by many Catholic laity about the public face of our bishops” and also I hope by our priests. Public face and private agenda are still oppositional. Just check out the public court records. Its still there. Thank you Frank S. re your “What a knockout punch.” accolade. That gave me hope, hope I can achieve the same in court. You wonder whether any of the bishops will be listening? My experience, which is personally extensive, would concur with your assessment that Self – justification is the absolute rule for the church hierarchy. It is as if Vatican 2 and Body of Christ was never stated. You note “They appear to have “had to have their noses rubbed in it”, but it has not in fact changed much behind the scenes. You only have to look at court records to see this. And we must not forget Provincial Leaders in this scenario. They are equally if not more immersed in the quagmire of Self- Justification. It’s a messy business. So we remain still as with Celia with "entrenched hierarchy, privilege and status" and "the selfishness of the rich". Yes Celia I will “Keep on writing Jennifer your thought provoking responses.” Thank you. And I hope all above interested check out just what is going on in the court scene re the Catholic Church, but it is not all about Bishops, keep the Provincial Leaders of the Religious Institutes in your sights. It is a potent mix.
Jennifer Herrick | 26 May 2014


Wow! A reminder that we live in a post-Christian society.
val | 29 May 2014


What is the realistic, manageable, and certainly imperative alternative to Abbots harsh asylum policy. To this time I have neither read, nor heard critics submit such an alternative.
Laurie May | 20 October 2014


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