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Bishops' statement challenges politicians' hard hearts

  • 10 September 2015

The Australian Bishops' 2015 Social Justice Statement on justice for refugees and asylum seekers comes at the right time. The image of the little boy who died in Turkey has stirred effective compassion in Europe for refugees, and has led Australia to increase the number of Syrian refugees it will take.

But the bishops' statement is not likely to receive enthusiastic support. It advocates for people who have sought protection, not in Europe, but in Australia. Some 70 per cent of Australians, and presumably the same proportion of Catholics, agree that Australia must do what it takes to stop the boats.  

The bishops are concerned with 'what it takes'. Their statement describes and criticises strongly the way in which people who seek protection in Australia are vilified and treated.

The tone of the statement is set in its introductory quotation from Pope Francis' sermon at Lampedusa. He went there to repent for the hard heartedness that led finally to the deaths of people seeking a humane life in Europe.

He focused on the people who made the journey and the people who responded to them. His tone was elegiac in focusing on the fate of people who sought protection, and uncompromising in deploring the hostility and rejection which they found. He encouraged his hearers to enter the experience of asylum seekers and allowed their outrage.

As you would expect in a statement directed to Australian Catholics, the bishops appeals to the Christian values embodied in the stories of Jesus and in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The statement embodies these principles in the experience of people who seek protection, beginning with the persecution they experience in their own nations, their flight to seek safety, the effects on them of prolonged detention, particularly on vulnerable people.  

This exploration of experience invites its readers not to imagine people who seek asylum as a problem to be dealt with, but to see them as people like ourselves in need. Through this lens they criticise severely the way in which governments of both major parties have treated asylum seekers, sketches the outlines of a humane policy based on assessing their claims in Australia, and offers ways in which Catholics can express their compassion and can demand a better way.  

The core argument of the Statement is that Australian policy treats living people as things. Their brutal treatment is a means to a policy end.

As a nation, we