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Parsing the Catholic bishops' election advice



The Australian Catholic Bishops' statement on the upcoming federal election, 'Politics in Service of Peace', is significant as much for the fact that it was made as for its argument.

Cover image from the Australian Catholic Bishops' statement on the upcoming federal election, 'Politics in Service of Peace' depicts Parliament House in Canberra with a blue filter.It comes in the middle of a long, bruising time for the Catholic Church, and for the bishops in particular, culminating in the trial and sentencing of Cardinal Pell. When speaking on moral issues the bishops have lost much credibility in the wider society and among Catholics. Furthermore, in the media for whom the dominant Catholic story is the sexual abuse scandal, any other news is likely to be seen through that lens. Given the polarisation of public debate in any electoral campaign, the bishops might well have thought it wiser to remain silent.

Compared with bishops' statements of an earlier period, 'Politics in Service of Peace' is notable for its modesty. It does not claim to offer authoritative teaching, or criticise the policies of particular political parties. It simply outlines consideration for Catholics and others to keep in mind when voting. The bishops address themselves to their audience, not as authoritative teachers, but as fellow citizens. They also urge Catholics to talk about issues outside their church community.

The statement is consistently eirenical and inclusive in tone. The emphasis on peace is maintained throughout. It encourages and aims to model a respectful and conversational engagement between people of different views. It avoids the polarisation characteristic of much debate between Catholics in the United States between issues of personal morality, such as abortion and euthanasia, and issues of social morality, such as the treatment of refugees, ecology and equality.

It finds much to praise in Australian public life, including initiatives from both sides of politics: for example, the national redress scheme for victims of sexual abuse, the NDIS legislation and the Apology. Such achievements are used to highlight the work that remains to be done. When treating of abortion and euthanasia, too, it focuses on the plight of people who are prevented by the lack of support from finding a better way. In this focus on persons in discussion of principles the statement owes much to Pope Francis.

The statement is structured explicitly around Catholic Social Teaching. It consistently emphasises the unique dignity of each human being, and in its reflections on welfare and the economy it privileges the common good rather than private profit. The responsibility of society, and so of government, to the most disadvantaged in society is also stressed. It invites Catholics to use this resource to reflect on the issues raised in the election. It also urges them to speak about the issues with their fellow Australians.

For the bishops the greatest success of the statement may be that, when they spoke of public issues, the sky did not fall in on them. Certainly, their initiative is commendable. Most readers will be gratified that the tone is not defensive but quiet and reflective. This modesty in teaching contrasts both with the more combative and certain judgments on society and current issues that characterised such documents in an earlier era, and with the intemperate certainties of the election campaign. The checklist of issues and the considerations relevant to making judgments about them are also quite helpful.


"The bishops have dipped their toe into the water after a freezing winter. They are understandably tentative."


In this statement the bishops have dipped their toe into the water after a freezing winter. They are understandably tentative. It is proper then to ask what we might ask of similar documents when they begin to swim more confidently.

I would hope for a brief overview of Australian society and its needs. This would help readers to see the connections between the different issues touched on in the document and would also mark priorities among them. Pope Francis, for example, addresses many features of modern society, but he returns constantly to the need for a just distribution of resources and for care for the environment. Gross inequality and exploitation of the environment go together and cause great damage to human beings.

Without similar concrete reflection on Australian society today, the reference to Catholic Social Teaching risks being an academic exercise and the various election issues seeming disconnected. The defence of the bishops' right to defend Catholic schools, for example, would be helped by setting it in a broader reflection on the needs of young people in Australia, and especially of those most disadvantaged.

The statement recognises that Catholic speech to the broader society now needs to be a modest conversation between equals. If this is so, the authority of statements about society will best be conferred through symbolic action.

Pope Francis understands this. Such gestures as bending to kiss the feet of the warring Sudanese leaders, and travelling to an Italian island to ask for repentance for the death of people seeking protection, are more than personal quirks. They are the heart of papal teaching.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australian Catholic Bishops, Plenary Council 2020, Election 2019



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Existing comments

It would, indeed, be extremely difficult for a Catholic bishop or bishops to speak on any public issue these days. They have lost credence. It will be a couple of lifetimes before they get it back. The days of the Mannix diktats are long gone. Someone like Mark Coleridge is much more tentative. Jesus never preached party politics, but he did speak out about social and economic exploitation and injustice. He interacted with the despised Samaritans. He mixed with those at the lower end of the social scale. One of his constant themes, to the rich and powerful as much as to everyone else, was that individuals can make a difference, both off their own bats and collectively. He founded a community, not just an institution. Catholic education is one of those great, often sadly unsung success stories in Australia. These days many commentators bemoan the demise of 'values education'. Catholic education has values in spades. Sometimes the bishops do not need to 'speak' with many words, but to point to where things are coming together in the Church. These 'silent sermons' are often vastly more effective.

Edward Fido | 02 May 2019  

“It avoids the polarisation characteristic of much debate between Catholics in the United States between issues of personal morality, such as abortion and euthanasia, and issues of social morality, such as the treatment of refugees, ecology and equality.” There must be a PhD thesis in social psychology or sociology as to why those who see hobgoblins in the former seem to slip naturally into the roles of seeing hobgoblins in the latter, while those who don’t see hobgoblins in the latter seems to slip naturally into the roles of not seeing hobgoblins in the former. Perhaps, to refer to Father Brennan’s obituary of John Molony, Father Luigi Sturzo was mistaken and an old-time DLP with its mix of seeing the little person in the empowerment of subsidiarity would have bridged the gap between personal and social morality as public issues.

roy chen yee | 03 May 2019  

Mark Coleridge has restored a glow, not yet a flame, to the dying embers. It's time for Catholics to fan the ashes!!

john frawley | 03 May 2019  

In 1986, (more than 30 years ago) lawyer, Raymond Mouton told a meeting of canon lawyers in Washington, "The church...cannot credibly exert moral authority in any area where the public perceives it as incapable of maintaining moral authority internally.' As congregations have followed survivors of clerical abuse and their families out of the church door, Australian Bishops continue to fail to actively support appropriate victim redress, fail to act to implement the Royal Commission into Child Abuse recommendations and fail to honestly disclose the ongoing role of canon law engineered to actively conceal abuse within its own ranks. Bishops are quick to act when education funding is discussed, but fail to take responsibility and care for those that their own institution abused. According to Professor Patrick Parkinson's evidence to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry (2013), "The level of paedophilia amongst Catholic priests in Australia is more than six times the total of every other religious denomination. The public may listen if Australian Bishops talked about supporting uniform national mandatory reporting laws or innovative redress for victims. Head Australian Bishop, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge has even failed to publicly support the introduction of mandatory reporting laws for clergy in Queensland. Bishops are the sole managers of Catholic Education Services in Queensland but are not required to be mandatory reporters of clerical child abuse.

PBOYLAN | 03 May 2019  

Fr Andrew, how the Bishops can have the temerity to pronounce on political and social issues at all until they clean up their own backyard is a mystery. I still maintain that the hierarchy of appointments within the church should be abolished, as it epitomizes all the characteristics of clericalism. Here we have the Bishops issuing political comments, conservative they may be, but carrying on as though the abuse scandal was just another glitch along the road. As for praising the NRS set up by Pell, it is a hideous system where the church instructs its lawyers to invite counselling for victims (usually a ploy called Towards Healing - a front for catholic insurance). Then go into damage control over church property. Then delay, go quiet, occasionally mollify the complainant with a sop on a hyssop stick and hope he or she dies before they have to make a pay out. The Catholic church cannot pretend to have any genuine authority in this land until all the sexual abusers of children (organised groups of criminal pedophiles) are torn out of the catholic education system, millstones tied around their necks, taken out to deep water and tossed into the sea.

Francis Armstrong | 04 May 2019  

Well said PBoylan. Bishop Mark Coleridge in the mid 90s was spokesman for the Melbourne Archdiocese and he would return letters unopened to BR which attempted to expose the massive abuse problem. He may be the most senior cleric now in Australia, but despite the best intentions of BR, never acknowledged the abuse problem until forced to in 2010. It was also Messrs: Benedict, Pell and Coleridge who collectively forced the resignation and early retirement of Bishop Bill Morris after he complained to Benedict about a particularly vicious sex abuse case of a student by a Toowomba Headmaster in a catholic college there, where Bill was Bishop. Back then, George Pell had the temerity to publicly declare Bill Morris to be "not a team player". But in reality echoing Benedict's desire that the reputation of the church was to be protected at all costs and the those who exposed abuse could be excommunicated. Bill Morris was also subject to some phoney charges of heresy which cloaked the real reason he was forced out, exposure of abuse. Now Mark Coleridge is unashamedly after George Pell's role as next step up the church's ladder.

Francis Armstrong | 07 May 2019  

Thanks, Andrew, for your remarks, especially about tone. Over the last couple of elections here in Tasmania I have been doorknocking for political candidates. Whilst in a few homes a crucifix was visible, there were many more Buddha statues. Peace and quiet before redemption, it seems. I get Catholic social teaching and the principles mentioned. The principles of the dignity of the human person and the common good are fertile grounds for conversation. Nevertheless, our bishops seem to overlook the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. This is especially so in relation to sexual abuse. They have kept to themselves the Church's response and there is not much evidence of their solidarity with those harmed. In terms of subsidiarity, why have they taken to the field in club colours without laymen and especially lawwomen on the "team"? When will they get that Francis Sullivan and others like him now have more stature in the public square than they do? How about a conversation about subsidiarity and its application within Catholic Education Offices across the nation? Your Graces, "do as I say, not do as I do" is an indefensible stance in the current climate.

Kim Chen | 09 May 2019  

The greatest moral issue the world seems to be facing at present would have to be climate change. It is the elephant in the room, It seems little has been said about it. The other matters will pale significantly if this is not addressed and action taken.

John Whitehead | 10 May 2019  

The only people who take notice of Catholic bishops nowadays are parish priests and Catholic school principals.

Bruce Stafford | 11 May 2019  

A generous and laudable estimation, Andy; however, when you write of disconnections in the Bishops' Letter, it seems to me that these reflect some glaring gaps in the Bishops' own discourse. For instance, it appals me that so many senior aficionados of Catholic Education at the national level, all of them appointed by the Bishops, are products of the right-wing/free market 'think-tank' called the Centre for Independent Studies, whose ideology and preferred policy prescriptions are assiduously critiqued by the St Vincent de Paul Society, whose former Chief Executive Officer, John Falzon, revealingly and compellingly critiques in this very e-journal the extent to which Australian policy norms and standards flagrantly disregard Catholic Social Teaching. Could it be that the independence of the Society from episcopal and diocesan control renders its actions and policies a threat to the Australian Bishops?

Michael Furtado | 16 May 2019  

I dispute the assertion that abortion (as a choice rather than in circumstances of medical necessity) is an issue of personal morality and not one of legitimate societal or public concern. The protection of all lives is in fact one of fundamental concerns of any society. Women fought courageously to bring spousal violence from its privatised closet into full public scrutiny. The protection of 70,000 early vulnerable lives per year deserves similar vigorous scrutiny. Please do not imply any softening by Pope Francis on abortion “as a choice“. In anguished frustration with this counterfeit meme, he recently pleaded publicly with parents to understand they were virtually “hiring a hitman” to resolve their inability to accept responsibility for their actions. This pope will never appease the ideologists at the expense of oppression and injustice directed at the most vulnerable. Jesus got cranky too.

Michael Clanchy | 30 October 2019