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Parsing the Catholic bishops' election advice

  • 02 May 2019
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.

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