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Bishops' voting advice needs grounding in dignity


Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Election 2010In an election campaign that has so far been characterised by negativity and by the avoidance of commitment to any principle that might cost votes, the Australian Bishops' advice on voting is welcome. It avoided bagging particular political parties, enunciated broad humane criteria that should guide voters in their decisions, and pointed to issues that Catholic agencies regarded as central in the election.

Those who pondered the letter would find material for calm reflection on what matters. For the Bishops what mattered clearly were human beings and policies based on the kind of familiarity with their lives that comes from personal contact.

After reading the letter I wondered whether there may be room for church leaders to offer a little more guidance. Without attacking political parties, might they also ask more detailed questions about the conduct of the election and of party policies in the light of the principles they enunciated in the letter?

I would personally have liked to see the criteria more deeply grounded in the issues attributed to Catholic agencies owned by the Bishops on behalf of all Catholics, and some questions raised about the fit between the criteria and the policies of the parties on these issues.

The criteria stated by the letter are interesting because they are framed as human rights: the right to adequate food, shelter, to human dignity, to contribute to society and so on. Churches have sometimes been critical of human rights language. But rights need grounding, something that churches have long experience in providing. A little more reflection on the grounding of human rights would have tightened the list of criteria.

The first criterion suggested it is the right of every person to human dignity. But human dignity is not strictly a right, but an endowment. Because human beings are ends in themselves and are precious, they have a unique and inalienable dignity. Their dignity grounds the other rights, which spell out what it means to treat people in a way that respects their human dignity.

This point is important to make in the present election because the rhetoric of both major parties and the media implicitly presents human dignity, not as an inalienable quality of all human beings, but as something that depends on accidents of birth, of race, of nationality or of compliant behaviour. Those who are not of our nationality and do not follow our ways can be treated as objects, not as persons.

The rights which the Bishops offer as the criteria for voters are generally couched in terms of the individual. Catholic reflection on human dignity emphasises the importance of relationships as the context of rights. People's dignity is respected only when cooperative relationships are established in which priority is given to the needs of the poorest and to their participation in the decisions that shape their lives.

Elections are about shaping a society that respects or diminishes human dignity, and this social dimension deserves a stronger emphasis among the criteria that guide our voting.

Within this framework the issues attributed to Catholic agencies are all areas in which human dignity is at stake. They affect the shaping of society and so the ways in which human beings flourish or are reduced. So their importance could be recognised by the Bishops on behalf of all Catholics. Policies dealing with the treatment of asylum seekers, Indigenous people, women, the disabled, families, the aged and the unborn each will have aspects that respect, and aspects that fail to respect, human dignity.

Currently in Australian political life, one expression of human dignity seems particularly under threat: the need for governments to involve people as subjects and not objects of policy. Respect for religious belief is only one of many areas that might deserve attention. The treatment of Indigenous people and of prisoners also raises questions.

Other issues mentioned by the agencies have to do with the solidarity of Australians with human beings in other societies — through refugee policy, overseas aid and so on. Because respect for human dignity must be non-discriminatory, these areas are of concern for all Australians.

Of course, in a short letter not all can be said that needs to be said. What the Bishops' letter does, it does well and with appropriate modesty. A simple and firm grounding in the implications of human dignity might strengthen it further.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: australian bishops, how to vote, catholic, human dignity, caritas, jesuit social services, refugee service



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Existing comments

Don't know why the bishops could not, if the situation was,dire endorse one political party.
Would the Bishops have said it was alright to vote for a dictator?
So sometimes strenghth comes from being strong, and sometimes political parties have to be challenged if their policies are both so out of sync or harmony with fundamental Church teaching.

Look at it this way if parties are not challenged they know they can get away with far more than if they know they face the prospect of alienating both key leaders and voters!
I wouldnt mind if the bishops suggested the strongest Pro life, pro the disabled, pro family, compassionate to the asylum seekers and pro catholic education party. Sometimes people dont feel sure and they like the expertise of others.

I would take notice and make the decision based on consideraion of what they had stipulated!

REEN | 12 August 2010  

A good one Fr Andy!

Much prefer this to your article about women's ordination last week!

Agree with everything you said.

Jason | 12 August 2010  

"political parties avoided commitment and the bishop avoided commitment" and you can make a story out of it ...

Greig Williams | 12 August 2010  

A thoughtful article; thank you. It inspires a perhaps trivial yet (I think) relevant point; I take my cue from Don Watson.

Dr Hamilton's article hinges partly on the terminology of the word "rights". What is also needed in this election, as in previous ones, is making the political elite accountable for fudging, political language and thus possibly concealing they really want to impose (by invoking the voters' "mandate").

Unless all of the political contenders are compelled by the community into clearer modes of speech, with a minimum of self-serving jargon, voters like me will continue to feel hindered in our need to assess clearly the social and personal inequities that are still with us.

The voices for all our religious communities serve the community well when they "speak truth to power" in clear
terms that do not court the policians' own fascination with poli-speak but confront the assumptions underlying the

Fred Green | 12 August 2010  

Where a party stands on life issues such as abortion and euthanasia, is a foundation issue.

If you do not have a life, you cannot benefit from any governments:education, health, environmental or any other policy. Jesus was not a political leader but he did not want people to be lukewarm and said something to the effect that " I will vomit you out of my mouth". We need strong leadership from our Bishops.

Pat Madigan | 12 August 2010  

I prefer to see the letter as a wonderfully positive move.I was so impressed that finally there was a gentle voice of Christian reason from our Church that I circulated it widely within the somewhat conservative Catholic organisation with which I am involved.The expressions of appreciation from those who habitually listen to the voices of fear and division have been very heartening.

margaret | 12 August 2010  

While I agree with Andrew's point that dignity forms the basis on which the other "rights" lie, I'm not sure that our secular society sees it that way. Therefore, I think it was a good move for the bishops put it as first of the "rights".

Of course, the first right and the fifth right together make a good case for the Bishops to examine the role of women in the Church but somehow I suspect that is not going to happen.

Erik H | 12 August 2010  

I am surprised that the issue of defence had totally missing in this letter. War has created more evil, death, poverty, and starvation and human rights abuse than any other event. Australia needs a strong and credible defence to ensure that our future generations can live in peace. Defence may have been forgotten amongst all the lovely motherhood issues and political correct statements, but remains one of the most important issues for Australia.

If we cannot ensure our security, all other issues will become nil and void.

Beat Odermatt | 12 August 2010  

No, Fred Green, it's not trivial. Any politician who claims to have a 'mandate' for something that's in the party's platform is thoroughly dishonest. It's pretending to assume that everyone who votes for that party approves of all its policies.

Gavan Breen | 12 August 2010  

The scandal of the bishop's letter - which appears to have bypassed Father Hamilton - is that the specific right to life of all human beings, irrespective of their stage of biological development, is relegated to the very bottom of the list even thought it is the THE foundational human right to which all other rights are but footnotes. The bishops are are too mindful of political fashion.

Syvester | 12 August 2010  

I think that there might be something more to be said. I have become increasingly alarmed by Julia Gillard's attitude to education, and her references to working hard, e.g. her father working two jobs. Slowly I have come to realise that what concerns me is a world view that I call mechanistic, i.e. a tendency to see children and adults as machines. An implicit glorification of those who do not respect the limitations of their human bodies and feelings or indeed the bodies and feelings of others is becoming apparent. If, for some reason, you are not hard-working, are you diminished as a person and unimportant as a member of the community? It could be argued that this attitude flows from her atheism, but I think not. Atheists can, and some do, respect their own humanity and the humanity of others. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but if I am not and Julia Gillard does have this world view, then it is important that we are made aware of it. It may not be a reason to alter our votes, but it should put us on our guard to examine very carefully any policies that she proposes and to be prepared to oppose those plans that have consequences that are detrimental to, or devalue, our humanity. Look no further than some of her ideas about education.

Sheelah Egan | 12 August 2010  

I agree with Pat Madigan - well said.

This document of the bishops is a spineless travesty. In a century hence, historians will be citing it as one item of the copious evidence that the Catholic Church hierarchy "could have done more" to alert Australians to the plight of the unborn and their role in voting for politicians to protect them, just as a few historians today are criticising Pius XII over the holocaust. The difference being that those future historians will have considerably more grounds for their claim.

Jesus was a lot of things. One He wasn't was a pussy-footing namby-pamby. And I challenge anyone to name one bishop saint in the first 19 hundred years of the church who would have put their name to this piece of paper when facing 80,000 cold-blooded murders a year in their land. St Catherine of Siena, pray for us.

HH | 12 August 2010  

What a delight to read Pat Madigan's comment to Andrew Hamilton's article. Yes, we need strong leadership from our Bishops. Catholics need to be informed what the Emily's list and its members stand for, also to read Revelation 3:15-16 and have the courage to stand up and be counted. Thank you Pat, you have brightened up my day.

Ron Cini | 12 August 2010  

The Right to Life lobby has moved in force. Why aren't they talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where hundrdeds of thousands of innocent civilians have been made "collateral damage" to US interests?

Pat Mahony | 12 August 2010  

I wanted to commend a one page statement by Roger Herft, Archbishop of Perth on politics and religion.

I will quote its last two paragraphs.

"The Prime Minister and others on various sides of the political arena have assured the electorate that they will respect those with religious convictions. Christians need to remind themselves that those who do not profess the Christian faith are still capable of adopting an ethical and moral framework which assists in public policy decision making for the common good. Any statement which portrays the Christian faith as having some type of exclusivity to be the sole arbiters on matters of moral integrity and just policy making, are unhelpful and untrue. The mission for Christ's church in humility is to embrace believers and non-believers alike.

Keep in mind that God can cope with those who cannot or do not believe in the Divine!!"

Roger's statement can be found at


Gerry Costigan | 12 August 2010  

Pat Mahony, the Right to Life lobby should also be criticising the jihadists who have killed thousands all over the world in furthering their Islamic supremecist agenda.

We would not want to make it seem that only the interests of the United States are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, would we?

Patrick James | 13 August 2010  

Well said Andrew,
Personally I was not very impressed by the Statement. By trying to appear non partisan/non political we ended up with a wishy washy article. I beleive that the Church should stay out of politics as it risks becoming identified with one side or the other, missing important social/ humanitarian issues or supporting inapprocriate actions/policies. Any examination of the Church history from the past shows support for issues which are unacceptable today;(Slavery,support for dictators-particularly in South/Central America to name two examples. I have a strong personal interest in the Philippines and sadly too many times the Church has backed the wrong horse or worse ignored the rampant abuse of social justice by the rich and powerful.Its stance on population issues and social issues there remains a real concern for me.

Gavin | 13 August 2010  

Methinks that the author of this article, along with Fr Brennan, protest about the Cardinal's comments NOT because of the manner in which he presented them, but because his politics simply do not align with theirs. I wonder if they would be up-in-arms about a Cardinal behaving in an 'un-dignified' manner in the 'public square' if it were an issue that was dear to their hearts. Lets imagine that Cardinal Pell got a bit fired up and emotional about ... say, a Human Rights Bill and he was right on line with Fr Brennan's point of view... now would this "Eureka Street" site be filled with reprimands towards the Cardinal about his undignified behaviour. Hmmmm, I think not. The 'uncovered' and 'undignified' manner in which Fr Brennan et al expose their antagonism to the Church hierachy, especially Cardinal Pell, is in my opinion a greater concern than this Greens issue. I'm a firm believer that unity is a powerful force in advancing the Kingdom of God and Christ's purposes are undermined by so-called Catholic leaders making public their personal issues with those in authority. Fight and argue if you will, but I would say, do this in a mannered and ordered way ... not in the 'public square'. Perhaps practice what you preach.

Cathy | 13 August 2010  

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