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In the chorus of Yes, why aren't the bishops joining in?


The official position of the church on the Voice referendum is curious, because, despite overwhelming support for a YES vote from an extraordinary range of Catholic agencies, religious orders and congregations, and voluntary Catholic organisations, the highest national church authority, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, has not followed suit. This is surprising because the whole trajectory of debate within the church seemed to be leading in that direction.  Most importantly, the ACBC has not followed the advice of its own Indigenous advisory body despite claiming to listen to it. 

When Anthony Albanese announced on August 30 that the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be held on October 14, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) issued a media release advocating a Yes vote. NATSICC said: 


Just as the churches strongly supported the 1967 referendum, we hope that Catholics, along with other people of faith, will support the YES campaign. 


These words repeated part of the NATSICC contribution to the 2023-24 Social Justice Statement, Listen, Learn, Love: A New Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. NATSICC concluded then in the strongest terms:


We, NATSICC, feel that the referendum is too important to fail. The consequences for our people and the whole nation would be devastating. 


In that same statement the Australian bishops, under the heading ‘Learning from our Indigenous Sisters and Brothers’, proclaimed that they 


Listen to what the members of NATSICC have shared about the current plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 


The bishops then outlined the positive trajectory of the church towards the Voice proposal. 


In 2021, we endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which speaks of the disempowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and of their hopes for a better future for their young people. The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia also offered its support for the Uluru Statement in 2022. 

The Voice referendum in late 2023 will be a significant moment in the struggle for justice by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 


Yet, despite this, the obvious punchline never came. The bishops did not support the YES campaign, though they had urged a YES vote in the 1967 referendum. Instead, they concluded that the ACBC: 


Will not tell Catholics or their fellow Australians how to vote in the referendum. Instead, we ask all Australians to seek out information on the referendum proposal, especially from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 


What followed was advice to ‘participate in opportunities for dialogue’, ‘weigh up the arguments and information carefully’, ‘choose the option which you believe offers the best chance of healing and justice for the First Peoples of our land’, and ultimately, ‘let love guide you in making a decision that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to find justice’. 

Effectively, despite these fine sentiments, the Catholic bishops appear to be wiping their hands of the referendum choice and have chosen to stand above the fray. This is a strange choice and a missed opportunity to demonstrate that the Catholic approach to justice defines the Voice as a moral question. 

As the bishops note in the Social Justice statement, their ultimate position sets them apart, not just from NATSICC, but from many Catholic organisations and a ‘wide range of business, sporting, faith and community organisations’ which support the YES case. Catholics will receive lots of advice explicitly outlining how they should vote, but none from their own church leaders.’  

What explains this apparent change of heart and mind by the bishops? 

Carefully reading the relevant statements on the Voice by 24 Catholic organisations assembled on its website by Catholic Social Services Victoria, it is hard to avoid asking the question: is this really in line with where the bishops want to be?>

The other two pillars of the church in Australia, Catholic Religious Australia and the Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons, are among the Catholic organisations that appear to support the YES case. I say ‘appear’ only because these statements have been made over several years and while all appear to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart not all specifically yet advocate a YES vote. I imagine that will come during the final referendum campaign itself. Expect many Catholic organisations, including from the school and social services sectors, to campaign hard for a YES vote. Perhaps they will be joined by some individual bishops.  

There are three possible reasons why the bishops have effectively stood aloof from the community's choice on The Voice

One is that they have chosen not to become involved in what they consider to be a ‘political issue’. Just as they generally haven’t taken sides in party politics since the 1950s, they see the referendum in the same light. They can deal in generalisations and platitudes, as they might on Laudato Si and climate change, while steering clear of backing specific proposals. 

As part of this reasoning, they may not accept that the Voice is a moral issue, on which Catholics should take one side. Rather Catholics can vote either YES or NO in good conscience. That is different from encouraging both sides of the debate, as some prominent schools have chosen to do. The bishops could do that and still express a considered opinion, which is not the same as telling Catholics how to vote. 

Secondly, the bishops may themselves reflect the divided opinion of the general community. In the Social Justice Statement, they note that many prominent Catholics support the referendum, but some do not. Those who do not include some, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, who are extremely close to certain bishops. There are also Catholic party politicians, like the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce and Senator Matt Canavan, who are strongly against the referendum proposal. 

The bishops collectively may have feared that a stronger statement would cause open dissension within their own ranks, which they never like, and lead to strong criticism of them from the Catholic NO side. 

Thirdly, the bishops may distinguish between support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart and support for a YES vote. This is the only way to explain the earlier strong statements of support, such as that by Archbishop Mark Coleridge in September 2021 when he endorsed the Statement and called for ‘putting it into action in all ways possible’.  

In May this year, after the ACBC plenary meeting, the bishops issued a ‘statement on Indigenous Voice to Parliament’ which encouraged Australians to ‘read and discuss the Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and prefigured the Social Justice Statement. At that time the bishops noted that the Voice to Parliament ‘isn’t the only way to achieve’ recognition of Indigenous custodianship of the land, but that something needed to be done and that the Voice ‘is the way requested by those who gathered at the historic meeting at Uluru.’ The bishops then said sympathetically that The Voice ‘could be a significant step towards a more just and equitable Australia’ and ‘offers a mechanism to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’. 

Are the bishops now saying that they now cannot support this Voice as enshrined in the referendum question? This seems to be the only way to explain the apparent discrepancy between what the bishops have now said and the almost unanimous support for the Uluru Statement in July 2022 at the Plenary Council.

The ‘neutral’ position that the bishops have taken does matter. Some Catholics will welcome their position, but many, perhaps most, will not. Many Catholic organisations could interpret this as a slap in the face.

That assumes, of course, that the Social Justice Statement really is neutral and not a statement, despite the bishops’ conclusion, whose substance tilts towards YES. The bishops have, after all given NATSICC a greater platform than they would normally give any agency within the Church. 

Whether the bishops’ surprising neutrality makes a difference in the larger scheme of things is hard to predict. Perhaps the days of bishops making a difference are over anyway. This call may hasten their irrelevance. But my hunch is that it will take the support of a majority of Catholics to get this referendum over the line. If it fails, then the fine sentiments of the Social Justice Statement will seem hollow. 




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and was a member of the Plenary Council.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Synod, Catholic, Church, Voice, Referendum, AusPol, Yes23



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Existing comments

With counter-productive accusations of lies, racism, misinformation and divisiveness being hurled politically from both sides, it is fitting and understandable that the bishops refrain from reducing the Voice exclusively to a moral matter that requires their directing of the choice of Catholics. The prudence they have exercised is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity, a cardinal plank in the platform of Catholic Social Teaching.

John RD | 14 September 2023  
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'Subsidiarity' is an aspect of social justice that accords the authority and responsibility for effective consultation and decision-making to be divested from remote and centralist/collectivist functionaries to appropriately local and accountable entities at the interface of where that self-same Keynesian economic interference was deemed necessary.

Unfortunately - and uniquely in Australia under ideological pressure from that arch-centrist/corporatist Catholic ideologue, BA Santamaria, subsidiarity was co-opted into the vocabulary of Australia's proto-fascists (which is what ardent supporters of General Franco unquestionably were) and weaponised to ensure that public works on behalf of the poor by various Labor Parties, both federal and state, were vilified as nefarious exercises in socialist intervention in the free-market which, left to its own devices, was argued to be the best means of improving the conditions of the poor.

As a specialist in Catholic Social Teaching, I contest John RD's assertion that, in washing their hands off an actual commitment to collectively recommending a 'YES' vote, our bishops are invoking an important aspect of Catholic Social Teaching in support of their position.

It used to be said by CST scholars at home and abroad that the Australian bishops who supported Santa were following Pilate. Not much has changed!

Michael Furtado | 01 October 2023  

Would that the SJ priests Vic Turner, Bill Smith, Harold Lalor and co. - long and close associates and supporters of BA Santamaria - were around today to learn that they were "proto-fascists". I'd like to see that!

John RD | 03 October 2023  

Excellent call from you, John, for the Bishops to step up. However, they will not as they are politicised and have lost sight of their role in leadership in social justice. Shame on them.

However, we the laity say yes to the voice, yes to social justice for First Nations people.

Carol | 14 September 2023  

The debate on the Voice has become a bitter and divisive political issue. Abuse and vilification abound. The Australian Catholic bishops do well to steer clear of endorsing the Yes campaign. It would be like the old 'Vote DLP to prevent Communism' catch cry. Many Catholics feel the issue is a bit like buying a pig in a poke. Not all No supporters are 'racist'. I refer to Tony Abbott and similar. There is serious debate on the constitutional implications going on currently. The Prime Minister's ' Crash through or crash' approach may well lead to the latter, as it seems to be doing.

Edward Fido | 14 September 2023  

"At least we are not Presbyterians". An unworthy thought I know..And in the future, who knows...?I'm thinking the Bishops are sharply divided along the usual lines and as so often happens do not know how to resolve this.If in doubt play safe.

Margaret | 14 September 2023  
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Nothing morally commendable in that, Margaret, unless you regard an imagined prudence on the bishops' part as the moral equivalent of speaking out.

For your information, Martha Nussbaum, the world's leading Aristotelian scholar - Aquinas gets his moral philosophy from Aristotle - argues that prudence isn't just an overrated virtue, it is not a virtue at all but a process through which decision-makers must wend their way before making a stand.

The seven capital virtues, also known as contrary or remedial virtues, are those individually opposed to the seven deadly sins. They are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Prudence is merely a cardinal virtue, along with justice, temperance and courage. The Bishops are called to speak out with prudence, justice, temperance and courage about all capital issues to do with chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Each one of these capital virtues are available in my estimation to prompting a more forthright statement by the Bishops in supporting a YES vote.

Were anybody to put me to the test of constructing a statement that meets all the above seven capital virtue points in support of a YES vote, I would be happy to do that.

Michael Furtado | 01 October 2023  

I dare say that, eminent scholar though she is, Martha Nussbaum, once a doctoral student of Oxford classicist and analyst of ancient philosophy, Gwylim Owen, would be surprised to find herself touted as "the world's leading Aristotelian scholar."
Dr Nussbaum's disqualification of prudence as a virtue is a radical departure from Aristotle's explicit categorizing of its moral status: "Prudence is a virtue" (Nichomachean Ethics, VI, 5). In this classification, contrary to Michael Furtado's minimalizing modifier "merely", Aquinas follows Aristotle, and, employing a house-construction analogy, awards prudence foundational status among its cardinal companions (Summa Theologica II-II, 48.1).
I note with interest, too, MF's enlistment here of his previously extolled gender theorist, Judith Butler's, severest critic.

John RD | 02 October 2023  

I welcome the neutrality of the bishops on this referendum but do think that generally the bishops should generally be far clearer about acceptable voting - largely by making clear that one can never morally vote for the Greens or for any party that supports abortion or other eugenic policies.

Bob | 14 September 2023  
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Nice to know that, Bob, but it classifies itself as an opinion and not a judgment, which requires evidence or other form of justification.

Assuming then that you appeal to the proportionality clause in Aquinas, your assertion stands on shaky ground, considering the seriousness of the Indigenous situation in regard to life expectancy, education outcomes, incarceration, generational trauma from forcible removal from parental supervision and our prior policy of genocide.

On the other hand, the principle of reparative justice, central to Catholic Social Teaching, requires an apology followed by just compensation, without which any priest in the confessional would tell you that an apology is meaningless.

This is the test that all confessors must apply to what is meant by 'a firm purpose of amendment'. Amendatory justice is precisely the same as reparative justice.

In the Catholic Church our Bishops are unequivocally responsible for all matters of faith and morals. Indeed. their Episcopal Oath of Office obliges them to do so! While they may be responsible for pronouncing on this question in a pastoral and sensitive way, it has never been the teaching of the Catholic Church that a pastoral theology should be an end in itself but a method.

Michael Furtado | 01 October 2023  

The Catholic Church has an ambiguous history in relation to First Nations Australians and sadly the Bishops are missing an opportunity to graciously accept their modest request, be courageous and genuinely stand with them. Who are we to deny those who have been here for 60,000 years to say "No, we will not support you?"

Narelle | 15 September 2023  

See Jacinta Price at the National Pres Club yesterday and you will have your answer.
If you have any exposure to the workings of the Land Councils you would know what a self serving operation they can be, with a huge waste of resources.

Nev Hunt | 15 September 2023  

The bishops have clearly stated their support for The Uluru Statement/Voice - that's as far as they should go. If they get more involved in the politics of the referendum they will be seen as just another player in the political game - along with CEOs of corporations, sports stars, the media and the rest. They should stay above the political circus so that people see the Church as operating on a 'higher' level.

Russell Hamilton | 15 September 2023  

Perhaps the Bishops realise that this referendum is already lost to the disingenuous negativity of Dutton, Abbott et al. Or perhaps they are simply responsibly pragmatic and realise that when some 90% of baptised, nominal Catholics in this country can't be bothered practising their religion they are highly unlikely to listen to any political advice offered by the Bishops. Wise of the Bishops to avoid politics and stick to the role of pastors of their flock rather than political advisers.

John Frawley | 15 September 2023  

I think that the bishops are correct in remaining neutral. I think that the voice proposal is intrinsically divisive and should not succeed. There are other ways of improving the welfare of aboriginal people and, most importantly, they must want to do it for themselves, the voice will not do it for them.

Duncan Stuart | 15 September 2023  
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Indigenous people "do" want to "do it for themselves". That's why, via this referendum they are asking for a guaranteed seat at the table when matters affecting them are discussed. Top-down interventions have poor outcomes and waste resources. Voting YES is voting for those better outcomes. Voting No is a vote for more of the same, despite all the work Indigenous people right across Australia have done for many years to get to this point. In spite of the very loud voices of certain Indigenous people, over 80% support this request to listen them. Voting No says, "No, we are not going to listen to you, we don't want to listen to you." If you see any value in Catholic social justice, the only vote is Yes.

Margaret C | 24 September 2023  

Ask any disadvantaged cohort if they want a guaranteed seat at the table and they will say yes. Are they all to have their own voices to parliament too?

The real issue for the Yes case, not answered by them, is what makes the disadvantaged among the Aboriginal peoples so different from the disadvantaged among all other cohorts in the population that they must be treated differently.

Given that asylum seekers are exposed to threats to life should their applications fail, should they too have an eternal constitutional advocate?

If the Yes case refuses to address the most obvious question, it'll only become an elephant in the booth on voting day.

s martin | 25 September 2023  

Hmm....an insightful and disarming observation, S Martin. We certainly shouldn't treat the Australian electorate as the fools the 'No' casers evidently take us for by assuming that Australia's First People should inherently gain prior moral advantage for their cause in the context of the tragically lengthy queue for recognition of their human rights claims over our equally much-beleaguered asylum-seekers.

Since you raise this excellent question, no doubt you will find that St Thomas Aquinas deals with issues of moral proportionality in exquisitely lengthy detail in his Summa Theologica.

As my four-year old daughter, Camille, now living in Scotland, once said, "Two wrongs cannae make a right!'


Michael Furtado | 28 September 2023  

"Listen to what the members of NATSICC have shared about the current plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."
To act on this statement with bold leadership would witness to an understanding and commitment to synodality.

Brian Tierney | 15 September 2023  
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Yes, Brian! For Catholics, at the very least, Synodality provides the key to casting a YES vote.

Michael Furtado | 28 September 2023  

Perhaps it has something to do with the chorus of desire of everybody in that little group to pluck heads of wheat on the Sabbath, except the Lord of the Sabbath.

It would be a derogation of dignity of the Monarch (or, for that matter, the Pope, who is the head of the Australian Church) to take sides in the referendum. Perhaps that same derogation applies to the college of princes of the Church. Except for confirming canonical truths, the bishops should be above the fray in most things.

s martin | 15 September 2023  

"In the chorus of Yes, why aren't the bishops joining in?" Some think they already have.
I have just read a letter by Bev Cains, President of the ACT Right to Life Association, to Archbishop Costelloe, head of the ACBC, strongly criticizing their two official documents as "politically partisan." She says that their letter of May 11, "was a direct call for support of the Voice by the ACBC." Inter alia, she questions whether the Voice will "result in improvements" to the lives of Aboriginal Australians.
And that is the pertinent question. Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price recently told the National Press Club that the Voice was "flawed in its foundations" and "is built on lies and an aggressive attempt to fracture our nation's founding document and divide the country built upon it."
The bishops would do well to tread carefully.

Ross Howard | 15 September 2023  
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Ross, many, especially Professor Brennan, have carefully and cogently argued that the Constitution is already fractured and that even an inadequate addition, such as conveyed in the proposal to add to it 'A Voice to Parliament', would constitute an improvement, albeit flawed, to the way it currently stands. Thanks!

Michael Furtado | 28 September 2023  

I've read a lot of what Fr Brennan has written. There are very many eminent legal opinions on the Voice, and that is what they are, opinions. How the High Court would interpret is unknown. The latest opinion I've seen is by Professor Nicholas Aroney, professor of constitutional law at UQ, who thinks the Voice is a new head of power which could see a shift in Commonwealth/State powers, so very far reaching..

Ross Howard | 05 October 2023  

This is an extraordinarily important national matter which has been exploited for party political gain and on which the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has collectively failed the leadership test.

Many Australians lack knowledge of indigenous issues and a consequent appreciation of the moral imperative, due to the inexcusable avoidance of indigenous history in our education system for so long, reflecting perhaps the continuing shame for past policies and action; from massacres to the stolen children and the well-recorded ‘gaps’ in social well-being. The referendum is an opportunity to redress that educational deficit by sound leadership and to involve our indigenous people in closing the gap.

The referendum involves a minor constitutional amendment acknowledging, albeit belatedly, the foundational importance of our indigenous people to our nation, responding positively to the generous Uluru Statement from the Heart arising from an extensive consultative process amongst indigenous people. The Voice simply ensures that governments listen to indigenous people before determining policies affecting them.

Christian principles require Christian leaders to point to the moral arguments for these constitutional provisions. There is no room for ambiguity in moral leadership.

Peter Johnstone | 15 September 2023  

I am appalled to read the proposal that the catholic bishops should be "above the fray" on this, perhaps the most significant moral issue of our times in Australia. I see the bishops happily standing "above the fray" as their saviour is taken to trial. Shameful.

Lee Andresen | 15 September 2023  

I am utterly appalled to read the proposal that the catholic bishops should be "above the fray" on this, perhaps the most significant moral issue of our times in Australia. I see the same bishops happily standing "above the fray" as their saviour is taken to trial. Shameful.

Lee Andresen | 15 September 2023  

"reducing the Voice exclusively to a moral matter"
= moral matters are irreducible. John.

Lee Andresen | 15 September 2023  

It would seem Catholic bishops are not measuring up to the standards being set by other elite proponents of the Voice. I don’t see that as a negative? They may even be, wittingly or not, inviting us to see that we have prophets who are speaking ‘wide of consecration and office’. There was the Syrophoenician woman of the Christian Gospel pointing out to Jesus that separatism was not human: we are to strive to be equal at the one table of life and healing. The equivalent in so-called democracies is to give adequate and equal representation to all in our legislative assemblies. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is on to genuine humanisation when she promotes an end to separatism, and calls for the acceptance of truly grounded parliamentary members of whom we now have more than a dozen. Let us promote these and others like them, and officially do away with Canberra based lobbyists.

Noel McMaster | 16 September 2023  
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I'd swallow that line, Noel, had you not offered Senator Price, as the living embodiment of a prominent Australian politician who believes in the adequate and equal representation of her people in the way that the Syrophoenician woman lifted the foggy veil of misapprehension that Jesus hitherto had by assisting Him to proclaim a fuller and more authentic version of what it takes to be fully human and equal.

When Senator Price cites the introduction of running water as evidence of improvement in the living standards of our Aboriginal & Islander sisters and brothers, one can hardly avoid regarding that statement as akin to Marie-Antoinette's about advancing the nutritional advantages of cake over bread, thereby sealing her tragic fate before being trundled towards her unfortunate decapitation at the Place de la Bastille!

As a monarchist and opponent of capital punishment, I so wish it hadn't eventuated that way but cannot escape the corollary that minimalist solutions after years of abuse & deprivation call for a proportionate degree of understanding and adequate reparative justice.

Unfortunately, Senator Price's commendable base-line championing of minimalism misses this point, rivetingly made by CB Macpherson in his 'Real World of Democracy'.

Nevertheless, full marks for trying!

Michael Furtado | 28 September 2023  

The bishops then said sympathetically that The Voice ‘could be a significant step towards a more just and equitable Australia’ and ‘offers a mechanism to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’. What more needs to be said. Every thinking Australian would know the obvious answer to this is YES But, enter Murdoch and Costello Media with their brandrd Liberal Party, and suddenly an obvious referendum is thrown in jeopardy, because mining lobby is morecimportant than first nation's rights. The church has long defined this. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Attack the Minerals Council and their 'horns' the Murdoch & Costello media and LNP Parties, who have no moral compass. Australians know what is right. They know in their hearts, what the moral thing to do. If it wasn't for the greed of Mining Moguls, there would only be YES! Bishops already live you Yes vote, most Australians already live the Yes vote. The doubt is being woven by the Mining Industry with their fear-mongering media & politically vehicles. It's not the responsibility of the Church to put their heads on the media chopping block. It's us Australians job to ignore the lies, and give First Nation the voice that was taken from them and restore it, despite the fear mongering from right_wing mining-paid politics.

Cate | 17 September 2023  

ACBC statements can easily be politicised, and this risks upsetting conservative voters/benefactors in white collar, blue ribbon parishes. Further division.
Though, I'm not sure what holds back individual Bishops in speaking on the matter?Surely some are intending on voting Yes and could lend their pastoral leadership to the campaign. I would love to hear more of their voices.
Concern for a better future for all Australians, particulalry First Australians, is in line with Catholic Social Justice Teaching.

Damien | 17 September 2023  

Maybe the bishops and priests realise that the recent statement issued by the Bishops did not go down so well as it did sound biased towards the Yes campaign. Frank Brennan recently spoke on the Voice and did clear up a few things about the Voice but even though he has decided to vote yes he certainly gave discerning Catholics plenty of reason to say No

PHIL ROWAN | 17 September 2023  
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That's an interesting but unsurprising interpretation of Frank's position. Frank had some legalistic concerns with the wording of the referendum proposal, concerns that have been strongly dismissed by former Chief Justice of the High Court Robert French, leading academics in constitutional law, Frank's brother (a Senior Counsel), the Solicitor General, and experienced senior public administrators. Frank has now categorically supported Yes.

Peter Johnstone | 20 September 2023  

Before the parliamentary committee, my argument was that if there be disagreement between French and Hayne on the one hand and Callinan and Jackson on the other, we were best advised to change the wording from ‘executive government’ to ‘ministers of state’, thereby reducing the effects of the disagreement.

There is now little contest about ‘the legal effect of representations made by the Voice’. Parliament will have power to control that. But what about the preconditions for the making of a representation? Can Parliament control or curtail those? That’s a question the government declined to put to the Solicitor General. The government has never provided an answer. Nor, as far as I am aware, have the legal authorities listed by Peter. Would the Voice be entitled to know that a public servant was contemplating making a decision relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? And would the Voice be entitled to sufficient information from the decision maker so as to make an informed representation? I would think so. It is at the very least arguable. Otherwise the entitlement to make representations would be meaningless or completely ineffectual. I don’t think subclause 3 which is ‘subject to this Constitution’ (ie subject to subclause 2) could preclude the Voice’s twin entitlements to notice and sufficient information under subclause 2. It’s these entitlements which may be contested in future were the referendum to get up.

But despite all this, I am, as Peter says, unequivocally for ‘Yes’ as very little is perfect in this life!

Frank Brennan SJ | 26 September 2023  

It feels as if the defence that the Bishops should remain neutral is only an excuse that comes out when they lack the courage to stand by their principles.

Furthermore it seems this only happens when the principles relate to social teaching, rather than teachings on sexual morality or school funding.

Brendan | 17 September 2023  
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"It feels as if . . . it seems . . ."
More is required than 'vibe' response and specious analogies to win support for the referendum proposal, Brendan.

John RD | 19 September 2023  

I can understand why the bishops might want, for political reasons, not to take a stand either for or against the referendum; what I can't understand is why the remain silent in the face of the lies, half truths, and deliberate disinformation being pedalled, mostly, by the 'no' side. Are the bishops only interested in calling out immorality when it's concerned with sex or the beginning and end of life ?

Ginger Meggs | 20 September 2023  

Damned if they do and damned if they don’t

Ron HASSARATI | 21 September 2023  

Agree with your comments Lee Andresen but would go even further to suggest that the monetary gain in the bishops sitting on the fence would be a contributing factor. Who exactly puts their money regularly in the coffers? Entitled elitists of a certain age need to be consoled at the very thought of starting to even up the playing field for our First Nations people. Such a change to the Constitution takes nothing away from the majority but makes a huge difference to the minority. That we are hesitant to this change beggars belief! A shameful lack of leadership in core values!

Patricia Hamilton | 23 September 2023  
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That's a very cynical attribution of motive, Patricia Hamilton. Mere assertion and stereotyping are no substantiation of the charge you make against both the bishops and those you claim they seek to appease.

John RD | 25 September 2023  

Hello Patricia,

Take no notice of John RD. As much as I respect John’s scholarship on Church history and Church Doctrines, there is valid justification for pessimism. For most of the time since 1788 Christian bishops of all codes remained silent on “thou shall not kill, shall not steal” of First Nations peoples, their lands and even their children.

Christian Churches, like St Paul, “held the garments” of murders. In my very own much beloved Naarm, the lands of St Paul and St Patrick cathedrals were gifted to the churches by Governor La Trobe. But there was a problem! It was not his to gift. It was stolen Land.

While I pride myself in not being innocent about the Dark Side of history – indeed there are much dirty business in my own also beloved, and to some extent forgotten, Italian heritage – there is nothing wrong with a bit of atonement. It will not kill us: it may even do us a bit of healing.

Be the past as it may, like Martin Luther King I too have been “to the mountain of the Lord and have seen the Promised Land”. I have seen young people, fully qualified and experienced in their professions of teaching and nursing, working in remote desert communities. Yes, they may well be following in the footsteps of nineteenth century missionaries, but this time they are doing things a bit differently. They enter their Lands, their communities, their families, their languages with respect.

Fosco | 25 September 2023  
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Fosco, while I can't claim such visionary experience as Martin Luther King's, I was privileged to see Balgo Mission on the edge of the Tanami Desert when it flourished as a stock horse and cattle industry in the days before the Pallottines withdrew. This missionary enterprise commenced in the 20th century - 1939 - and, by that time, the missionaries were already "doing things a bit differently".
That the people, and the local Kukatja (Gugadja) language - the predominant one in the area - were respected is evidenced in the groundbreaking work done by the Pallottines that contributed significantly to more recent dictionary publication. What's more, the missionaries encouraged Balgo artists who were innovators in the now-established Papunya Tula movement; and elements of Kukatja language, ritual and music were incorporated into the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy.
The attitude of the Balgo elders towards the missionaries which came to include John of God nuns, was one of both respect and gratitude - not least, I might add, for the buffer of protection they provided against predatory white "rogues" on the run from the law in the big towns and cities.

John RD | 27 September 2023  

If Patricia's assertion is cynical and unsubstantiated John,, what then is the reason why the bishops remain mute? Or to widen the question, why haven't the conservative churches come forward with material and moral support for the yes campaign? There was no reluctance to get involved in opposing the marriage equality poll; the Sydney Anglican hierarchy spent a million dollars opposing the marriage equality poll, and who knows how much the Catholic Church spent. Do they only come out when the Church's assets, power, or influence is challenged - as with the former Calvary Hospital or threats to government funding for private schools? As they have chosen to remain mute, providing no explanation of their own, you can hardly criticise Patricia for reaching her own conclusions. Furthermore, in citing one example from relatively recent times, you've not really answered Fosco's claim that 'for most of the time since 1788 Christian bishops of all codes remained silent on “thou shall not kill, shall not steal” of First Nations peoples, their lands and even their children'.

Ginger Meggs | 29 September 2023  
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The Bishops have not been "mute" on the referendum, Ginger - neither collectively nor individually (see, for instance, the recently released ACBC document and last week's explicit statements of support for the Yes vote by Bishops Gauci and Long).

What the bishops have declined to do (quite explicitly on p. 18 of their ACBC Social Justice Statement: "Listen, Learn, Love" 2023-2024) is to impose a binding of Catholic consciences on the referendum proposal.

Regarding 18th Century white arrival and early settlement, and accusations of sins of omission - viz, alleged episcopal silence urged from a contemporary perspective of retrospection - the earliest Australian bishops did not possess the advantage of knowledge coming from direct experience that hindsight affords:
the first Catholic bishop appointed to "The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit"- John Bede Polding - did not arrive until 1835, whereupon his energies were immediately absorbed in the task of meeting the spiritual an temporal needs of his growing Catholic flock (which included convicts) - and not, it might be noted, without formidable establishment Anglican hierarchical opposition. Within a decade of his arrival, however, in 1843, assisted by priests of the Passionist Order, the new bishop initiated the first Catholic mission to the indigenous peoples of Stradbroke Island - an experience that was to produce prophetically empathic, confronting, and remarkably un-Eurocentric advocacy statements like: "What right did you have to come here? We have not asked you to come, and you take away our lands, you drive away our means of subsistence . . . occupation by force, accompanied by murders, ill-treatment, ravishment of their women; in a word. to the conviction on their minds that the white man has come for his own advantage, without any concern to their rights." (Cited ACBC Social Justice Statement 2023-24, pp.13 -14).

Polding's demonstrated solidarity and sincere concern to serve the spiritual and temporal needs of indigenous peoples echoes and instances the traditional missionary direction of Pope Gregory I's "The Book of Pastoral Rule": "A religious leader should be careful when deciding to remain silent and be sure to say something useful when deciding to speak . . . hiding behind a wall of silence is like taking flight at the approach of a wolf" - advice formulated in the context of the Church's late-6th century mission to Britain during his pontificate. Polding was no "wolf". Nor were the Church's missionary Benedictines, Fathers Rosendo Salvado and Guiseppe Serra in their missionary labours among the Murrara-Murrara peoples of WA's Victoria Plains when they began their ministry under Bishop John Brady there in 1846. Before the establishment of the monastic centre of New Norcia, the two missionaries lived and moved directly among the natives, learning their languages and customs - respectful practices to be vitally influential as far as 20th century Balgo missiology before the closure of that brave, productive and significant Pallottine venture.
The dedication and courage of these missionary ancestors of the Catholic faith in Australia is deserving , I believe, more of recognition than of revisionist censure. Their pioneering actions are in the main an eloquent and humane counter-sign to the inhumane extremes of imperialist colonizing.

John RD | 01 October 2023  

The essence of the Church's teaching emphasizes the inherent dignity of every individual and the call to stand in solidarity with marginalized communities. Given this foundational belief, supporting the YES campaign would be congruent with the church's mission to champion the rights of the underrepresented and foster unity. It's not about dictating how Catholics should vote, but rather offering a clear stance based on Gospel values and social justice teachings. For the betterment of unity, justice, and the Indigenous community's well-being, it would befit the ACBC to reconsider their position and be a lot more vocal calling catholics to learning about the Aboriginal Voice to Pariliament. After all, are they not the Catholic leaders?

Andrew Dumas | 04 October 2023  

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