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Distinctive Catholic voices in the election campaign



There are many different types of Catholics with quite distinct Catholic voices in this election campaign. When the Church speaks we should expect diverse content despite the unifying force of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). The Plenary Council consultation has shown us where we stand as a diverse community, and further analysis shows that Catholics occupy the full spectrum of political opinion from the Greens and Independents, via Labor and the Coalition, to One Nation and the United Australia Party. 

The Church must speak up to be relevant, but those who seek to ‘speak for the church’ must be brave. They risk exposing themselves to claims of bias unless they stick to a very narrow agenda and speak in extremely measured terms. Yet if they are too bland they risk being irrelevant to the sharp end of political debate and their intervention becomes little more than a symbolic ritual. 

Statements do not stand on their own but should be measured against the dynamics of the political contest. It is not just ‘views’ but, more importantly ‘priorities’, that will be taken to support, oppose or even ‘wedge’ political adversaries. Every statement has a political consequence.  

Election statements must not only make an impact, but should also be a faithful representation of the views of those they seek implicitly to ‘represent’. That is a difficult task. If they make an impact which cuts across the platforms of the major political parties, then they will divide their own community. 

The best way to make an impact is to energise the Catholic community. Statements should have ‘legs’ in the wider electorate. This can come from media exposure, and each statement is invariably accompanied by a media release which focusses attention on the key messages; but competition for media attention is intense. 

The real ‘legs’ are the ready-made implementation mechanisms of the church: parishes, schools, agencies, and volunteers, who can spread the messages on the ground. The Church exhibits this strength in its statements. The St Vincent de Paul Society (St V de P) has 60,000 members and 3,000 employees. Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) represents 150 or more congregations with more than 5,000 members. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) reports that Catholic education has 100,000 staff and 770,000 students in 1755 schools


'The greatest need in raising the voice of the Church is to provide a greater sharpness and increased urgency. Bland content and style makes less impact than a prophetic voice.' 


There are commonalities, including drawing on Pope Francis, in their search for a distinctive Catholic voice but important differences too. Their purpose is essentially also the same, though the ACBC’s call for reflection by Catholics and people of good will seems more passive and less urgent (and more self-interested in parts) than the others. CRA’s concern for justice and advocacy for the most vulnerable is matched with Pope Francis’ call to move beyond partisanship to participation. It includes questions to ask political parties and candidates. St V de P, whose statement is cross-referenced by CRA, makes the point that its statement is informed by its members experiences in meeting with and helping others. 

The ACBC calls its broadly based statement “Towards a Better Kind of Politics”, drawing on Pope Francis’ exhortation to offer a message of love, hope, confidence and goodness. The bishops acknowledge that ‘no one political party fully embodies Catholic social teaching’. Its media release emphasises palliative and aged care, protection for vulnerable people and the eradication of poverty, and freedom of religion including sensible anti-discrimination provisions for Catholic schools. The core of the statement emphasises these elements plus accessibility for Catholic education to all families, Constitutional recognition and active steps towards reconciliation for First Nations peoples, a just system for assessing asylum claims, social housing, a new integral ecology, and the strengthening of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act. It advocates at least 20,000 additional places for Afghan refugees. It concludes by enunciating four principles of CST (human dignity, common good, subsidiarity and solidarity) and offers a specific prayer for the election. 

The ACBC is consistent with recent episcopal political interventions. But what the bishops miss is the opportunity to connect and identify with some other urgent concerns of many Australian Catholics. Despite the nod to a better kind of politics there is no mention of toxic political behaviour in Parliament House, negative campaigning, harassment and unequal representation of women and minorities, the demand for an anti-corruption commission, inaction on climate change and total lack of trust in our political system. Rather it is weighed down by caution and self-interest. It is, even so, ahead of the Government, and in some cases the Opposition too, on a rise in the rate of Jobseeker, at least 20,000 additional places for Afghans, and endorsing the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

CRA’s statement, a special extended issue of its regular publication, “Just Now”, has a sharper edge than the bishops because it reminds Catholics that we are called by our faith to act and to vote and to discern which party policies are ’most consistent with the Catholic ethos’. It calls for a vote for justice which puts common needs ahead of private interests, focusing on five key elements: the environment, First Nations people, refugees and asylum seekers, aged care, and disability, all based on CST. Even its rendition of CST has a sharper edge than the ACBC statement because it highlights Stewardship of Creation and the Preferential Option for the Poor. Lots of resources, including many outside church circles, are provided for those readers who want more. One imagines these resources being activated by keen members of religious institutes and put to practical use leading debates. 

The call by St V de P for “A Fairer Australia” is even more activist and energetic. It addresses five key policy areas: poverty and inequality, housing and homelessness, people seeking asylum, secure work, and First Nations people. It is the most extensive and intensive of all three statements, offering explanatory videos, a summary brochure, and policy papers for more information. Not only does it append a detailed research note from the Australian National University on “A Fairer Tax and Welfare System for Australia”, but it advises supporters that a report card checking how each of the major party’s policies “stack up against A Fairer Australia” will be forthcoming. Its “Tips for Members” advises how to start a community conversation, put a note in a parish or school bulletin, post on Facebook and write to or seek to meet MPs and/or candidates. This is an intense rather than armchair engagement with the electoral process.  

The Catholic community is well served by this variety of approaches to electoral engagement by its peak organisations. Read them all please! These approaches vary in their scope and in their activism. The broad ACBC statement should be bolder on some issues. CRA is more engaged and wrestles deeply with its task of promoting justice. St V de P goes furthest in seeking to make a practical difference for the vulnerable. 

Great effort goes into articulating these voices. The Catholic community should reflect on whether its concerns are being fully represented. If they are not, we should raise our own voices. The organisations themselves should be held accountable. The object should be put real democratic pressure on the Government, the Opposition, other parties, and Independents. 

The greatest need in raising the voice of the Church is to provide a greater sharpness and increased urgency. Bland content and style makes less impact than a prophetic voice. Catholics in and beyond the pews who want action for justice will identify more with the CRA and ST V de P approaches than with the institutional church. 





John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Crowd of people. (Anna Semenchenko / Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic Social Teaching, Election, AusPol, AustraliaVotes2022



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Existing comments

Has anyone, other than I, ever asked Dan Andrews, who is nominally a Catholic and sends his children to Catholic primary and secondary schools, how he balances the beliefs he subjects his children to against his own belief in abortion, euthanasia and less funding for palliative care?

PHIL | 26 April 2022  
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Thank you John. I agree with your analysis, in particular the need for the ACBC to raise its voice with greater urgency on priority issues. As a member of ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change) I was pleased that the Council, true to Pope Francis, supported the 'new integral ecology' and in particular the need for greater ambition for a 2030 carbon emissions target more in line with the emerging scientific consensus - 75% reduction?. No such reference however occurred in the approved statement for parishes and our own Bishop declined to give public support for the ARRCC election campaign, seeing it as a local (parish) issue while saying he did not want banners displayed on church buildings, thereby diminishing the response of the Catholic Church in the electorate. A better kind of politics must also be realizable in action.

Denis Quinn | 27 April 2022  

This comment regarding Dan Andrews is interesting, and seems to me quite irrelevant to the excellent analysis by John Warhurst. Because Premier Andrews allows some abortion and euthanasia to occur legally does not indicate that he believes these practices are OK. What he does himself, and what he allows others to do, are two quite different actions. His job as Premier is to ensure that these practices are not abused. Our job as Christians is to be empathetic when some find they need to employ such measures, not to proscribe what they do.

Frank Whillans | 02 May 2022  

CRA and St Vincent de Paul members are far closer to the lives of ordainary people than the episcopate, who are perceived in the main as being regal and remote. This is partly due to the fact that, in a hierarchical organisation, such as the Church, much of the Social Welfare statements it makes originate from the Vatican. Fortunately, Pope Francis is neither regal nor remote, but is very aware of the suffering this world is going through currently. The ACBC does make some sensible social pronouncements. I am all for the Catholic educational system including, along with its original target group, as diverse a clientele as possible, because with the rise of militant atheism, often of a Marxist tinge, there is a real danger to religious freedom, including the free expression of genuine Christian teaching. A society in which Christianity is muzzled, neutered or persecuted, as in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia or China, is a society capable of unspeakable evil. 'Catholics in Politics': we need to tread carefully here. I remember the days of Archbishop Mannix. That sort of leadership is singularly inappropriate to these times. I think the episcopate must let the laity take the lead in the realm of Caesar. The Church needs to speak powerfully in its own realm but must not confuse the two.

Edward Fido | 27 April 2022  

Thanks, John, always helpful. Could the editor provide links to the documents John refers to?

Kimball Byron Chen | 27 April 2022  

Word expended on bread, except for a quick 'freedom of religion including sensible anti-discrimination provisions for Catholic schools' which is then vitiated by 'But what the bishops miss'.

Without a vision, the people perish. But, what is The Catholic Vision? Fragments of the vision in CRA and SVdP, and even the ACBC, do not sum up to the whole in which the purpose of authority is to make conscious in individuals the idea of living up to being made in the image and likeness of God.

roy chen yee | 27 April 2022  

I'm grateful for this fine summary and the thinking behind it, so thanks John. There are very many matters that Australian Catholics are concerned about. The stated aim of highly influential policy makers that Australia should aim to be one of the top ten arms manufacturers in the world is deeply disturbing. The plight of the West Papuan people so near to us, and the deafening silence surrounding it, is a reality which surely should influence our approach to elections and to the people who hold or seek political power. There's an Election Kit available that's been developed by people from various ministries in the Church, called "Voting for the Common Good". You can find it here:

Susan Connelly | 27 April 2022  

Like talk, political promises are cheap, even from Catholic politicians.
Look for the rare virtue of prudence in politicians: “Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” (CCC 1806)
Too often, policies cloaked as “compassionate” (easy divorce, abortion, euthanasia etc) have been introduced which have been proven to be detrimental to the common good. With their left hand these politicians create poverty, then with their right hand, promise to relieve the misery they themselves have created, using taxpayer’s money. Then they throw more money at the problems, solve nothing, but instead create inflation which mostly hurts the poor, and damages the economy.
Just look at the USA. Inflation is the highest in 40 years, crime is out of control, and the flow of fentanyl through Biden’s open border policy quadrupled last year with enough entering “to kill every American” and resulting in 66,000 deaths. (Drug Enforcement Agency)
Yet those in charge, lacking the prudence to discern failed policies, double down on them.

Ross Howard | 28 April 2022  
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I doubt that no fault divorce has “been proven to be detrimental to the common good”. It is not always “easy”, to use your word, but sometimes it is necessary. When you look at the number of people (mainly women) escaping domestic violence situations, the ability of your “easy” divorce to offer a dignified safety net should not be underestimated. In other cases, both parties may be better off simply going their separate ways with no fault on either side. I would say this adds to the common good. I don’t expect you to agree with me Ross, so we will have to agree to differ.

Brett | 28 April 2022  

I have no problem with easy civil divorce, if the state must be involved in marriage at all. I would prefer however that it was not more than a divorce from bed and board (a mensa a thoro?) and did not permit adulterous remarriage

Bob | 29 April 2022  

Surely a matter for the individuals concerned and their priest.

Brett | 04 May 2022  

‘Surely a matter for the individuals concerned and their priest.’

Only if you don’t regard the matter as being especially important.

The criminal justice system is based on the idea that a crime is not simply a matter between the offender and the nominal victim because the community is also injured.

In fact, compensating the nominal victim from state funds was a late innovation caused by the realisation that the important aspect of injury to the community was obscuring the equally important fact that a nominal victim was being injured.

Remarriage after divorce injures the community because it prevents the repentance or metanoia of the two estranged parties reconciling, and it usually injures the wife because the husband, usually the economically stronger of the partners, finds it easier to remarry and continue with business as usual.

roy chen yee | 12 May 2022  

In response to Roy, 12 May. Okay with your opinion until the final paragraph. Not all divorced people want to remarry. But those who have moved on from their prior relationship and want to remarry should have the opportunity to address it with their priest, assuming they want to stay within the church. Therefore the matter is especially important. Not allowing remarriage itself injures the community because it denies a potential couple the opportunity to establish their relationship within their church community.

Maybe your community should just suck in a deep breath and say "despite what went before, we support you both in wanting a loving, supportive relationship with each other". It is better than the frustration of your alternative that they can never again be in a loving relationship with anyone other than their original spouse.

If you really want to bring community into it, I think my view is fairer. Then again, fairness is not always what religion is about.

Brett | 26 May 2022  

‘Not allowing remarriage itself injures the community because it denies a potential couple the opportunity to establish their relationship within their church community.’

Anyone can be a potential couple, a 60 year old man and the 18 year old stepdaughter of his divorced wife. The feelings between two people mean nothing if the context is wrong. If you’re going to be a Christian, or Muslim, or Jew or Buddhist or some other traditional religion, you’re saying that there is a moral realm which forms a context to which your emotions must comfortably conform. If they don’t, it means you’re in need of conversion because you’re out of alignment.

‘frustration of your alternative that they can never again be in a loving relationship with anyone other than their original spouse.’

To say that they can never again be in a loving relationship with their sacramental spouse is to return God’s generosity as they took a faculty which he created, a sacrament, to bind themselves together and they took a faculty which he created, love, on public promises to God and their Church, to give themselves the permission to use that sacrament. And now, one of them, sometimes both but usually just one, probably the male, wants, not to give them back for a separated but chaste and celibate life afterwards (which is also not ideal because it’s still playing games with the sacrament) but to trade them in for something else, rather like presents on Boxing Day.

‘fairness is not always what religion is about’

Fairness to God is always what Christian religion is about and because God loves each human as if s/he was the only human in the universe, what is fair to God cannot help but be fair to that human.

Your post is looking at a religious matter with secular eyes. That’s syncretism and very Laodicean.

roy chen yee | 28 May 2022  

One of the things Catholics should remember, not just from British and Irish History, which does form the background, but also from Early Australian History, is how long they were unjustly discriminated against in religion, education and employment. All this was overturned by decent people, such as Sir Robert Menzies, who, I believe, started funding for Catholic schools. There are politicians, such as Simon Birmingham, who are reputed not to be favourable to the funding of Catholic education. I do not know whether this is true. If it is, that should count when Catholics vote. Much of what Dan Andrews does seems to be anti-religious to me. Implementing the Safe Schools Program, whose main architect is, I believe, an avowed Marxist, is not a good thing. It is a form of compulsory social engineering as implemented by totalitarian regimes. Reversing the ill effects will take a long time. There needs to be real Catholic thought on the issue of our hard won democracy and where it's going. This is not about single issues, such as abortion, important though they are. It is about a concept of decency and equity in society as a whole.

Edward Fido | 28 April 2022  

For most of my long life I've been a churchgoer, both Catholic and Lutheran, now I'm neither. I'm also a 'laicised' Catholic priest. In all my church experiences,I spoke regularly with thousands of people. A massive majority of them did not believe in all or even most or many of either religions 'constitutions, Vatican doctrines, church teachings' and neither did many of the priests or pastors. But that didn't seem to worry most. They just liked sticking to Mass or Sunday Worship because they learned to do so in Grade 4, they liked having a chat or a coffee with their fellow parishioners in what really seemed like a pleasant 'club'. That, to me now, seems all okay. Many certainly didn't all believe in three persons of the Trinity, the divine nature of Jesus, transubstantiation not to mention dozens of moral teachings, heaven and hell, etc.

Isn't it natural, when we've got Free Will that this will happen? And yes, there are small percentages of churchgoers who do believe firmly that God listens to our prayers and that He sometimes intervenes (especially if Mary asks him to) but there are also plenty of ex-churchgoers who believe that we are all brothers and sisters, that we have free will, and also an intellect.

Is there a God like religions give us details about? Well, I didn't like thinking I'm an agnostic, but I'm certainly not an atheist, and I don't call myself a Christian either. I just don't know. Simple as that. I have been a searcher all my life and have come to terms with it.

Harry Mithen | 28 April 2022  
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'Losing certainty, keeping faith' as the title of another thread goes. Otherwise, why believe in searching? Or, to put this post at the intersection of a trinity of cross-roads, ‘Religion [sic] 2022: the value of independents.’

Answering ‘Why believe’ is compulsory for judges and juries. There’s no getting away from nailing your colours if you are in one of those roles to a belief on what ‘balance of probabilities’ or, even more stringently, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ means.

One hopes that a question not to be asked at the Pearly Gates is ‘Why do you say you believe?’ or ‘Is your belief on the balance of probabilities or beyond a reasonable doubt?’ Christianity, born in the orient but, in its majority mainline form, developed as an occidental phenomenon, is convenient to adopt because of a rationality which fits well with conventional (ie., Western) life. It doesn’t impose restrictions such as  having to wear a hijab or having to spit out saliva while on a fast.

If belief for most is mainly pragmatic rather than rarefied and nobody, as far as we can tell, has successfully told a mountain to toss itself into the sea, that may be why you can simultaneously say you believe while asking for help for your unbelief.

roy chen yee | 28 April 2022  

Thanks John for your analysis. Readers may have the impression that the Catholic Bishops did not address climate change in their statement. They did:

“The social, economic, health and ecological dimensions of the current environmental crisis must be addressed by a new integral ecology. Greater ambition is needed for the 2030 carbon emissions target. We hope for targets that are more in line with the Paris Agreement and the emerging scientific consensus. We need a holistic, long-term vision for the future – not just a vision for the economy but a vision for Australian society, the human community and the whole earth community.”

Jeremy Stuparich | 28 April 2022  

Thanks, John. I note particularly that:
"Despite the nod to a better kind of politics (in the ACBC Statement) there is no mention of toxic political behaviour in Parliament House, negative campaigning, harassment and unequal representation of women and minorities, the demand for an anti-corruption commission, . . . "
Surely these are matters on which the Church should be providing some Christian leadership if it accepts its responsibility to evangelise the teachings of Jesus!

Peter Johnstone | 28 April 2022  

When Catholics are incapable of running their own religion efficiently for the benefit of all peoples it is highly unlikely they could have any meaningful impact for good on the running of the whole country.

john frawley | 29 April 2022  

Thanks John for your , as always thoughtful comments. Part of being baptised is to be priest, prophet and king in your responses and actions; particularly so at important times in any election. The "signs of the times" in our Australian context puts the Uluru statement; the corruption of and indifferent national leadership in many spheres of public life, women's safety and equity/equality, boat people, failure to consider 'the common good', the gap between rich and poor, jobkeeper and our young people as key issues. Speaking out clearly seems to have become an art or courage we as Christians have lost. Truly understanding our call from baptism should lead us to be more active in the political space.

Rene Pols | 30 April 2022  

Fr Andrew the myopic Episcopal gaze would be better directed within the ranks of religious and clergy rather than outwardly toward current social issues. Getting their own house in order would be a far more praiseworthy exercise than making insipid comments about the social ills that beset Indigenous peoples, the homeless, climate change and the right to tap Catholic education into the public purse.
Heavens above the last person to be executed by the Inquisition was Cayetano Ripoll, a Spanish schoolmaster hanged for heresy in 1826. (The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition still exists. ) It was alleged that, according to Ripoll, it was not necessary to hear Mass in order to save one's soul from damnation, and he failed to instruct his students to give due reverence to the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, even the Viaticum administered for the comfort of the sick and to pardon the dying that they might be resurrected into heaven.
The Inquisitor righteously demanded burning at the stake but he was hanged instead. However his body was placed in a barrel with flames painted on it (signifying his fate in the after life), burned and the ashes thrown in a river.
1826 is not long ago. Thankfully the extreme carbon emissions of Catholic stake burning have given away to tallow candles. Still an extremely toxic CO2 emission exercise in this day and age.

Francis Armstrong | 06 May 2022  

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