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Elections and the Episcopal gaze



In his article last week John Warhurst discussed responses by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the St Vincent de Paul Society  and by Catholic Religious Australia to the coming Federal Election. He highlighted the distinctive features of each statement and recommended reading them together to capture a fuller Catholic response.   

I would like to complement Warhurst’s fine article by reflecting on the challenges which faced the Bishops faced in composing it and on how well their statement met them. 

We should not underestimate the difficulty that people who represent independent branches of the same organization face when drawing up an agreed statement on contentious issues. Even the widely applauded Uluru Statement from the Heart did not secure the support of all Indigenous groups. If the Bishops Statement was to be effective it had to be supported, or at least tolerated, by all members of the Conference, despite their differing views about political and church issues and the priority that should be given to them in advocacy. Such differences are natural among Bishops whose views will be influenced by the conditions of their own area and their own people. Rural Bishops and the people they serve, for example, might be expected to have different perspectives from their counterparts in the city.

Nevertheless, any statement will be ineffective if it is disowned or undermined by Bishops who go their own way. Resolving the tension between differences of opinion and the need for a consensus can produce blandness, one of the charges often brought against episcopal documents. As Warhurst suggests, for a complete Catholic view we need also to listen to the voices of more narrowly focused representative bodies.

A second challenge facing Bishops in composing their statement is to ensure that it reflects, commends and is built around the Gospel: the vision of human life and of the world that flows from faith in Jesus Christ and the action that it inspires. This demands theological underpinnings but not theological language. The stories and images of the Gospels carry this radical vision in a way that can speak both to the Catholic community and to the broader society. The challenge is to be salt to the world – giving both savour and sharpness. Pope Francis is the benchmark for speaking in a way that is deeply based in faith, is radical in its vision, and straightforward in its language.


'The final challenge in a polarised world is to encourage conversation and not the shouting in which the writers of the statement, not what they have proposed, become the focus of contention. At election time in which everything, including religion, is likely to be seen in party political terms, church statements must avoid providing excuses for that instrumental use of faith.'


The third challenge is to speak with authority. Episcopal statements derive their authority within the Catholic Church from being written by Bishops who represent it. Their authority extends in particular to statements of principle based in faith. This authority, however, counts for less in the public sphere on issues of policy where large principles need to be adapted to contingent and changing circumstances.  Views on such practical issues demand an authority based on experience and expertise. To speak authoritatively about such disparate public issues like education, inequality, ageing, discrimination, refugees and health care the Bishops need to have skin in the game, as did Pope Francis in Laudato Si’. He speaks with the authority derived from the barrios of Buenos Aires.

The final challenge in a polarised world is to encourage conversation and not the shouting in which the writers of the statement, not what they have proposed, become the focus of contention. At election time in which everything, including religion, is likely to be seen in party political terms, church statements must avoid providing excuses for that instrumental use of faith.

Given the tension between these different goals it is no wonder that the statements of Bishops Conferences are so often couched in abstract language and are bland, whereas the statements of individual Bishops can be less guarded. Although the election statement shows signs of tension, however, it is an inviting and helpful guide for Catholics and others to issues and proposals that should engage their attention as they vote. It does not offer an exclusive list, of course.

The overarching theme of the Statement stated in its title,Towards a Better kind of Politics, is effective in gathering the Bishops and Church together around an attractive ideal and the recognition that much must be done to realise it. In its proposals, too, the statement often appeals to Catholic Social Teaching which relates the public life to the Gospel. Its introduction to a better kind of politics, however, could well have offered examples of the worse kind of politics it wishes to replace. In a statement addressed to Catholics, too, the introductory paragraphs offered an opportunity to appeal to pertinent Scriptural stories and sayings that embody the radical edge of the Gospel. This would give urgency to the change called for and also emphasise the need for personal conversion to realise it. Although the content of Catholic Social Teaching is radical, its analytic language needs to be brought to life

The Bishops did well to ensure that the statement carries the authority of all the Australian Bishops and so also of the local churches that they serve. Although both in the Catholic Church and outside it this authority has been weakened by the crimes related to the sexual abuse of children and by diminished church attendance, it remains significant.

Some of the proposals made in the statement also carry the authority based on the expertise and experience which the Church and Catholic communities bring to particular fields of Australian life, most notably in education, health and aged care. 

Other proposals, however, disclose areas in which the Bishops and the Catholic Church have less authority based in experience. The advocacy for refugees, for the Indigenous Voice, for an integral commitment to climate change, raising the job allowance, eradicating homelessness, welcoming refugees and eliminating modern slavery are all commendable issues that should be taken into account when weighing one’s vote. But the proposals do not exhibit the same immediacy and depth of reflection as those on education and care for the aged and dying. They are issues that affect others.

These remarks are not intended to criticise the Bishops. They deserve credit for their care for people in need, which flows from the Gospel. In this respect, however, the Bishops represent the Church they lead, a Church in which relatively few of its active members are on Jobseeker, are Indigenous, seeking asylum or immediately affected by climate change. In comparison with the immigrant Australian church of the early twentieth century when proposals to do with social justice would have been seen as for the immediate good of Catholic communities, they are now seen as for the good of others. That they are made is generous and commendable, but at election time they will naturally be seen as aspirations rather than necessities, as good things and not as urgent things to do. If they are to affect voting they demand conversion and not mere approval.

For that reason a Catholic statement needs to claim the authority of the Gospel and the conversion for which the Gospel calls in order to underwrite its proposals that involve social change. They must be seen to flow urgently from the better kind of politics, and the politics in turn to flow from the Gospel.  

The lack of connection of some good proposals in the statement may also suggest that the Australian Bishops’ connection with Catholic agencies which reach out to poor and disadvantaged Australians is not as direct as it is to those involved in education and health. In contrast, the statements of the Catholic Religious and of the Vinnies have an authority based on experience and expertise.

Finally, the statement necessarily touches on politically contentious ethical issues on which the Catholic Church has a strong position, such as euthanasia, gender issues and consequent human rights. It does so effectively and well. Without buying into political debates or condemning the philosophies of those with different views, it insists positively on government funding for Catholic schools, the rights of Catholic schools to hire teachers sympathetic to their faith basis, the faith basis of the school, the importance of funding palliative care as an alternative to euthanasia, and the same freedom from discrimination on religious grounds as on gender and race. It invites reflection on how these values can best be embodied into government policies.  

The appeal to the Parties contesting the election made by the Australian Catholic Bishops for a better kind of politics is a call to conversion. It is also a call to the Catholic Church itself, including its Bishops, to conversion. As an appeal by those needing conversion to those needing conversion, it merits an attentive hearing. 




Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Priest celebrates the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass. (Pascal Deloche / Godong).

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bishops Statement, Election, AusPol



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Existing comments

The Church is a disparate group of people who are undergoing a personal conversion. A conversion which is not about worldly power. And yet we must engage with that worldly power to ensure our own, and others, authenticity. The Bishops must walk that fine line as we all do. I’m proud of them and want them to keep speaking.

Pam | 03 May 2022  

I commend Andrew for his sympathetic approach to the statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. He attempts to paint a picture of a compassionate response to our times by this group of men. Meanwhile, the individual actions of some of these men, it seems to me, lacks compassion as they attempt to turn back time to what they consider was the beauty of the Catholic Church before Vatican II. Until the whole number of them is supportive of the spirit of Vatican II ( and dare I say words of Vatican II) then the rogues in their midst only condemn them further, as a body, to irrelevant reactionaries.

Tom Michael Kingston | 04 May 2022  
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Just the words please. The "spirit" of the Council has been used to justify all sorts of oppressions and narcissistic innovations that in fact bear no relationship to the documents themselves. Hence some of the reaction now.

Bob | 10 May 2022  

Andy's commentary fills a small but important gap left by the terrific Warhurst essay, with its necessary focus on comparing the three statements. I for one am partly dissatisfied by John Warhurst's use of the word 'sensible' to describe the Bishops' position on Catholic school exemption from anti-discrimination legislation. Such exemptions do not exist in the various UK jurisdictions as a consequence of which more Catholics and others can avail of the fully state-funded provision of Catholic school education without having to confront the barrier of a fees-structure that, evidence now clearly shows, is increasingly forbidding for Catholic-school parents.

Sadly, neither writer, nor even Frank Brennan in his frequent forays into the murky attempts of governments to resolve this matter, have devoted any serious discussion, based on the self-same Gospels that Andy invokes, to point towards a clear and unfettered solution to this complex question.

In my own research I've encountered a Greens candidate who made it the cornerstone of his election-bid to call for the cessation of public funds for religious schools. When I pointed out that neither major party supported such a policy, he replied that the rights of transgender children took precedence over considerations of Church teaching.

Michael Furtado | 05 May 2022  

I suppose it was inevitable that the Episcopal Gaze would include references to euthanasia and gender issues, and the rights of Catholic schools to government funding whilst they discriminate in employment on religious grounds. Whilst I acknowledge the 'rights' of the ACBC to do just that, I'm disappointed that its gaze seems not to recognise the fundamental problem of integrity, honesty and truthfulness in public life which must surely be a prerequisite to good government.

Ginger Meggs | 05 May 2022  

‘the Bishops represent the Church they lead, a Church in which relatively few of its active members are….’

Unless you’re the Anglican Church in Australia in which twelve of the twenty four bishops seem determined to represent the few, even against the laity, the subordinate clergy and an internal source of theological expertise.


roy chen yee | 12 May 2022  

So now it seems that, whatever the ACBC's position, 'integrity, honesty and truthfulness in public life' did not escape the electorate's Gaze.

Ginger Meggs | 22 May 2022  

Well, now that the election results are in it's clear that the electorate's Gaze certainly included a desire for 'integrity, honesty and truthfulness in public life'. And if we accept what Chris Middleton has suggested in his recent post, they were also firmly in the gaze of Catholic-educated women. So why didn't the bishops see them also? Have they also lost contact with their laity and the wider electorate?

Ginger Meggs | 25 May 2022  
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‘So why didn't the bishops see them also?’

Didn’t they? So, what’s this about then:

‘Some of the proposals made in the statement also carry the authority….Other proposals, however, disclose areas in which the Bishops and the Catholic Church have less authority based in experience….’

What modernist Catholics (perhaps we should call them teal Catholics) want is for the bishops to shirk the topics upon which they have an intrinsic authority to speak in favour of topics about which they can only acquire the same learned authority as anyone else to speak. The Church has already, for a very long time, distinguished between the intrinsic and the prudential and the kind of authority, unconditional or contingent, which emanates from each.

roy chen yee | 26 May 2022  

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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.