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Elections and the Episcopal gaze

  • 03 May 2022
  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