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Catholic bishops deliver election year ethical wedge



When Archbishop Mannix ruled in Melbourne, politicians trembled at his pre-election comments. Now the Catholic bishops issue statements at each election, but they receive little publicity.

Family sceneThe statements are not designed to outlaw one party or another, but to point out issues that are ethically significant.

This year most comment on the statement focused on the call for support for marriage and family. Its most distinctive feature, however, is that it frames its reflections around the economy.

In this the bishops echo Pope Francis' radical vision, locating the root of Australian ills in the deification of the economy and of economic growth. The remedy they offer is to focus on the people whom the economy ought to serve, and particularly on those who are excluded from its benefits.

The list includes asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians, victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence and abortion, those addicted to drugs and the poor of other nations. It also includes the human and natural ecology on which all human beings depend if they are to flourish. Much human exclusion can be traced to the lack of appreciation of and support for families in societies where the economy is made a god. In a throw-away culture of over-consumption, they too are thrown away.

In the bishops' analysis, the challenge facing us in the election is how to ensure that the economy serves the common good, and particularly those excluded from it. For this to happen the human ecology in which marriage and family are so central need to be protected, as does the physical environment. But it will happen only if the voices of the excluded are heard and their faces seen.

The statement does not break new ground — its themes are consistent with long-standing Catholic Social Teaching. But in Australia it is distinctive because it sets sexuality, marriage and life within a broader framework of social ethics. It links respect for life and family with respect for the environment and with respect for people who are excluded.

The lack of respect for these things has its source in a culture that subordinates the welfare of people to economic growth and the making of wealth.


"Implicit in the bishops' statement is the conviction that the ills of Australian society derive from and are intensified by a culture that privileges the pursuit of individual wealth."


This framework means that the central issue of the election is not seen as how to encourage economic growth but as how to see the economy itself. The bishops speak less trenchantly than Pope Francis, who criticises sharply the assumptions and practices of neoliberal economics. They speak more generally of a culture of over-consumption.

In the context of this election, however, they add their voice to that of those who are concerned about economic assumptions that enrich the few and exempt corporations and business from social responsibility. Their statement will encourage those who see the now notorious antisocial behaviour of banks, finance business and corporations as symptomatic of a vicious economic ideology.

Implicit in the bishops' statement, too, is the conviction that the ills of Australian society derive from and are intensified by a culture that privileges the pursuit of individual wealth at the expense of social responsibility. This attitude ensures that there are inadequate public funds to help people who are disadvantaged to connect with society and to flourish within it. Such people are regularly deprived in the interests of unequal economic growth.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the statement is the link it forges between a right attitude to the economy and respect for natural and human ecology. The connection is fairly clear in the case of the natural environment where the unregulated pursuit of profit through activities that contribute to global warming harms the world we hand on to our children.

The link made between respect for human ecology — the network of relationships between human beings on which human flourishing depends — and a right attitude to the economy is more controversial. The Catholic definition of human flourishing on matters to do with life, marital relationships and gender is not widely accepted. But the privilege that economic theory gives to the competitive individual motivated by economic gain certainly does not respect stable marital and family relationships in the demands it makes on employees.

But the subordination of the relationships involved in the economy to those involved in the human and natural ecology does provide a consistent ethical framework for considering the major challenges facing humanity today. It also points to the incoherence involved in resisting limitation on individual freedom in personal relationships, while at the same time wanting to impose limitation on individual freedom in economic relations and in treatment of the natural environment.

The implicit argument of the bishops' statement is that a progressive view of the economy and the environment, which for the common good imposes limits on the freedom of individuals to amass wealth, also demands similar boundaries to individual choice in other aspects of human life. The bishop's statement is non-political, but it develops an old-fashioned ethical wedge.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australian Catholic Bishops, election 2016



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Existing comments

When influence wanes this is often a catalyst for change. Although Australia has never been a particularly 'Christian' country, secular values are even more dominant these days. The Catholic Bishops are right to keep their message before the public eye and in an election year particularly so. Individual freedom in personal relationships does not necessarily imply unrestrained unaccountability. The strongest relationships are ones where individuality is valued. However, corporate responsibility in regards to the economy and ecology is important and worth fighting for.

Pam | 18 May 2016  

And just who decides, Fr Hamilton, how much wealth is too much? Who is the arbiter of the common good? Who and how are these authorities appointed? What means do they use to enforce their will? What if these enlightened and all powerful individuals' decisions run counter to the people who appointed them? I find this article to be filled with high idealism that would, given the diversity of opinions and desires in the real world, be impossible to without the most coercive and repressive government. It's called socialism. It has been tried before and has never failed. Why do so many think that it can be done successfully this time? Why do so many not trust in the basic concern we can have for one another without having to regulate ourselves to be caring and kind?

Gerald Lanigan | 18 May 2016  

My Catholic, good faith take on this whole debate is this: the free market has lifted the vast bulk of mankind out of poverty over the last few centuries. Anyone who thinks that we are at a lower standard of living since about 1800 yet can't supply a consensus-based, peer-reviewed thesis to demonstrate this is a denialist.

HH | 18 May 2016  

A thoughtful peice- but the bishops statement appears to have disappeared without a trace with little impact on the public debate . Maybe a stronger and forthright position on the cruel plight of refugees in offshore detention centres would have been better received

David C | 19 May 2016  

Ah Dr Mannix! Other times, other ways of doing things. It is hard to imagine any Australian Archbishop or Conference of Bishops speaking as unambiguously and succinctly as Archbishop Mannix did before the 1958 federal election. "Every Communist and Communist sympathiser in Australia wants a victory for the Evatt (ALP) party". I can see why the Bishops statement has gone off in the mass media like a damp squib.. The result is - its message (or more precisely its many messages) will barely be heard by the man or woman in the street. Even within the Australian Catholic church I doubt if it will make much of an impact. Whether we like it or not, the dictum of Marshall McLuhan remains true - The medium is the message. I don't expect the Bishops Statement to be reducible to a three words slogan like 'Jobs and Growth" but it would help me in discussion with fellow Catholics and other of my friends/acquaintances, if I could say what are two or three of the fundamental issues that should exercise the mind of a concerned citizen in this 2016 federal election.

Uncle Pat | 19 May 2016  

Excellent comment, Uncle Pat.

HH | 19 May 2016  

The Australia Catholic bishops have failed miserably in running a united Catholic Church over the last 30 or 40 years. How on Earth can we expect them to offer any useful advice on running the flamin' country?

john frawley | 19 May 2016  

Perhaps people are tired of hearing the voices of unmarried old men with no appreciation of living in today's society. Andrew may recall the 'good old days' of old Bishops but they and the current message are irrelevant at this time.

Carmel | 20 May 2016  

If Australia were constitutionally the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit instead of just another de facto atheistic republic, the words of a national college of bishops might carry weight on their own. But, for Catholics living under constitutions which don't have a religious rudder, to decide whether what one or more bishop says should carry weight is a simple matter of measuring it against what the yardstick, the Pope, says. A pope should always be taken to be correct because, really, his only job is to be a prophet: to read his society in order to confirm his brethren. While, theoretically, a pope is not infallible except under certain formal circumstances, his purpose, to preach the continuing revelation of God while preserving the deposit of faith, would make no sense if the faithful did not take his utterances and writings at face value. With the deposit of faith, all he can do is remind us. But God can do new things too because his creativity is infinite. In order to make known God's creativity, the pope necessarily also has to say things which sound new but are only extrapolations from bedrock principles, God being both creative and without change.

Roy Chen Yee | 22 May 2016  

The problem is the world economy is based on having a certain percentage of the population living in poverty. Humans might think we're intelligent and in control, and even justified and moral - but it's still the basic evolutionary law of the jungle. If Catholic values are truly universal, they also have to be consistent and seen to be consistent. This is obviously not the case. The so-called deposit of faith has bunkered down into a niche where it's safe - controlling people's sex lives.

AURELIUS | 23 May 2016  

It is hard for me to read the bishops' statement without seeing a double dose of hypocrisy. Firstly: the statement is extolling the benefits of democracy from a platform of absolute monarchy. Then, in listing, quite rightly, groups of VOICELESS PEOPLE, it omits to mention the 'we catholic laity' (all five plus million of us) are perhaps the largest group of voiceless people in the country. Just a thought!

John Casey | 23 May 2016  

'Anyone who thinks that we are at a lower standard of living since about 1800... is a deniallst' ? Who is claiming that, HH? Looks like another straw man to me. Why don't you address the real issue at hand, the failures of the market ?

Ginger Meggs | 26 May 2016  

Thanks, GM. 1. In a discussion of the evils of privileging the pursuit of individual wealth, it seems to me that not mentioning that the free market - which allows individuals, if they so choose, to create wealth for themselves and their families, etc - has in fact enabled the world to rise out of grinding poverty for the first time in human history is an oversight - a condition of denial, as it were. To say this is not to "divinize" the economy - (a theme the Bishops unwisely borrow from Pope Francis, who is revealing himself to be a master of the straw man argument.) I understand the Bishop's concern with over-consumption - certainly from a moral point of view. But I would point out that one key force in the privileging of consumption in our culture today is not free market economics, but Keynesianism, which is the reigning economic orthodoxy in academia and government today and has been since the Great Depression. It's the Keynesians, not the free marketeers, who alleged that lack of consumption causes depressions. It was Keynes who came up with the magical, absurd "multiplier", which encouraged governments and consumers to spend, spend, spend their way to prosperity. It's the Keynesians who deplored saving and thrift - "hoarding"- as inimical to a healthy economy. Ideas have consequences. 2. Now, what alleged market failures would you like me to address?

HH | 27 May 2016  

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