What Catholics expect from politicians


Your Vote Your ValuesRecently Victoria's Catholic Bishops distributed to parishes their advice to voters in the November 27 state election. Entitled Your Vote, Your Values, it was quickly portrayed as an attack on the Greens, given its focus on euthanasia. 

The statement, however, was more complex and interesting than that description suggested. Its stated aim was to help voters make up their mind in a principled way on salient issues. It refrained from endorsing or condemning any party. It began by stating the central principle which governed its treatment: the Christian understanding of each human being. 

From this starting point, the document moved to the different areas of life in which human dignity is at issue:  the family, education, health and community.  On each of these areas it proposed questions that Catholic voters might profitably put to candidates.  In all, it suggested twenty five questions. 

Within the Catholic vision of human dignity, respect for life in its beginnings and endings has a high priority. So it is natural enough that questions about human life, including those associated with war, abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment should also have a high priority.  For state governments the most contested issues are abortion and euthanasia. So voters were encouraged to ask their representatives directly how they would vote on euthanasia and on their attitudes to abortion and freedom of conscience. The latter two questions took up issues raised by Victorian legislation passed in the previous Parliament.  

In the bulk of the statement questions were raised about housing, support for children, education, health care particularly of the elderly, treatment of offenders, policies concerning drug use and abuse and about religious freedom.  

The Bishops’ statement raises interesting questions. First, the perennial question about the propriety of church leaders buying into election campaigns. In this case the Bishops’ intervention seemed unexceptionable. They directed their writing to Catholics, proposed questions for them to reflect on and to direct to candidates, and refrained from indicating how Catholics should vote.  

After the Federal election campaign in which both parties were strongly criticised for avoiding any discussion of principle or of policy, the intervention of the Bishops should not only be tolerated. It should be applauded. Contributions from any group that lead to discussion about the moral dimensions of government policies and about the kind of society that they further should be encouraged.  

The second question raised by the Bishops’ statement is whether it is right to expect politicians to give answers to questions about social policy when their answers can be used as the basis of personal attacks. This has been said to happen in the United States where campaign issues are reduced to one determinative issue. 

The Bishops’ statement, however, makes it clear that voters should consider the many dimensions of human dignity that are reflected in different policies. It is hard to see why candidates could justifiably claim to be unfairly pressured when asked to state their position on issues crucial to their constituents. Indeed, if the practice of expecting candour on policies was to spread it would put under strain the unhelpful pressure in Australia to follow slavishly the party line. 

The third question is whether the Bishops have posed the right questions. In my judgment, all the questions they pose touch on principles that are important to the construction of any society. Most flow clearly from a Catholic view of human dignity and of its implications for society. I would have liked to see the questions about education, which are all concerned narrowly with Catholic schools, to have included questions with a broader focus on the education of all Australians. Perhaps, too, in the light of the focus on euthanasia and on care for the aged, it may have been helpful to have sought a commitment to increased funding for hospices for the dying. 

Of course, there could have been other questions. Respect for human dignity, too, should be reflected in political processes as well as in party policies. The public, if not all politicians, began to recognise this during the Federal Election campaign. In the state election campaign the issue has re-emerged in the general revulsion at the disgraceful campaign of innuendo directed against Mr Brian Walters. In future elections the Bishops may profitably draft questions that would invite candidates to dissociate themselves from any personal attacks launched from within their own party on the character of candidates in other parties.

Perhaps, too, electors should be encouraged to ask whether particular parties and candidates would provide competent government. Competence, no less than good intentions, is required if governments are to contribute to human flourishing. 

The merit of the Bishops’ statement is that it encourages reflections like this, and has the potential to contribute to a more informed electorate.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Victorian election, bishops, Greens, human dignity



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Existing comments

Hopefully, one day,such an article might be better titled "What Christians expect from politicians", as opposed to simply Catholic expectations.

Politicians should also be asked what they expect from Christians (Catholic and otherwise)and also the other religions that are increasingly claiming Australian membership.

There's also the reality of the political landscape to be considered...the ties that bind many MPs to party rules and regulations where an individual stance can...and does...invite instant expulsion. Perhaps bishops, imams and others might broaden their sights and seek a place at the decision-making levels of the various parties...such as the ALP's national conferences etc...so that their input can be offered to the leadership rather than simply the foot soldiers.

Then again,voters are often seduced by political promisess at election time only to stand aghast shortly afterwards when the backflipping and flopping kicks in.This is a critical time for religious leaders to intervene and protest.Labor's Doug Cameron recently spoke up against the risk of MPs becoming like 'zombies', Greg Combet is wondering aloud what Labor stands for and last night (ABC 'Q & A')saw union boss Paul Howes calling for political visions.
We live in interesting times. The whole nation is presently asking what we should expect of bankers...and equally,Bishops might ask themselves if they're providing what Catholics expect of them?A Christmas gift from all would be consultation...especially before parish Midnight masses are dumped.
Brian Haill - Melbourne | 09 November 2010

I am an Anglican, so may have different concerns. I was saddened by the absence of almost any reference to social justice - asylum seekers, indigenous, community harmony, poverty, housing, restorative justice rather than retributive, and so on; more important to me than most of the issues raised by the bishops.
PHILIP NEWMAN | 09 November 2010

Often the behaviour of Islamic extremists has been blamed on their religion. conversely, should we not place the blame of, say, Catholic priests who sexually abuse children on the Catholic faith? Should we not view Catholic priests with the same suspicions as some of us view Muslims who are dressed traditionally? What is the difference?

If we regard the jihad as a misguided divine intervention then we should also place the bishops' utterances on voting in the same category. It's patently clear that it's not the religion (itself) that is at fault. It's the men (and they are mainly men in the Catholic Church) who misguidedly interpret their faith. The tragedies of our history have been caused by them.
Alex Njoo | 09 November 2010

A postscript to my earlier comments...

Back in the 'olden times'the laity had a say in the choice and selection of bishops, in hand with the priests and the hierarchy....

Then somehow rulers wanted a say and, pogressively, it all got politicised and the laity lost its vote....

Would it have been then the the word disenfranchised took its place in the vocabulary?
Brian Haill - Melbourne | 09 November 2010

I would prefer that the church does not give advice about voting at all. We are still grappling with past failures of church authorities trying to gently coerce us into following the church position,in regards to voting and elections and matters of conscience, via denial of communion to dissenters and other measures.
I have no trouble with the church putting out statements in the ordinary course of the year to help us inform our consciences. Unfortunately in the past we have been like mushrooms - kept in the dark - and now that we are trying our wings (by informing our own consciences), the church wants to snip them, through this type gentle coercion.

I agree with Frank Brennan in his article, "Juggling God and Caesar"where he writes about church authorities:
"They may not set a hierarchy within the moral law as to which matters are more or less important in the political disputes of the day(abortion V Iraq war, or stem cell research V death penalty).
Ros | 09 November 2010

Well done, Andrew, and in general well done the bishops on this ... pretty well anyway. I think it is reasonable that the bishops should focus on what might be regarded as specifically `Catholic` issues, because by definition it is unlikely that anyone else would in the election debate. That does not mean that they , or the Catholic community more generally, does not care about broader issues of social justice etc, as brought up by Philip Newnman, for example. But they would know, as do I, that any other groups will be vociferous about these...including perhaps even Angicans? We need to share the lifting!
Eugene | 09 November 2010

I am a Catholic, but like Philip Newman I was disappointed by the absence of reference to many pressing social justice issues, such as treatment of asylum seekers. I was also disturbed by the failure to mention environmental issues, especially global warming.
Terry O'Neill | 09 November 2010

What I as a Christian expect of Australian politicians is that they strive to gain positions of power or influence in the governmental process.

In striving to achieve this I expect them to act morally for the common good of Australian society. Despite what Margaret Thatcher said I believe there is such a phenomenon as society which I define as a collection of human beings brought together by the fact that no one can be completely independent. We are inter-dependent in our daily struggle for survival and growth, our common good.

I would expect all our politicians to clearly enunciate what they think this common good is. And what means they espouse to achieve it.

It seems to me the emergence of political parties and party discipline has curtailed the room to move of most politicians.
I find a more interesting question would be what knowledge of the democratic process in a pluralist society do the Bishops have; of the struggle a politician has to go through to get pre-selected, to be voted into parliament etc.

Talk about "issues crucial to their constituents" is all well and good but are their issues significant in the list of the party's political priorities?

Uncle Pat | 09 November 2010

I think Uncle Pat makes very good points, and asks a very important question when he says what place does a candidate's own views play in the party. It's all very well to ask a local candidate what their views on (sigh!) abortion, euthanasia and Catholic school funding are: the issues confronting society/parliaments are varied and it’s unrealistic and arrogant to presume any candidate, let alone any party, can mirror exactly what we or particular lobby groups like the church think on all issues. Personalities come into play too. My guess is that no-one votes completely forensically, rather our vote reflects who we like or have been habituated to vote for. Who would dare to say these things aren’t legitimate aspects of our voting?

Finally, I'm disturbed that we allow ourselves to speak of a "Catholic" or even "Christian" scrutiny of candidates. Only undisputed exemplars like Francis of Assisi or Eberhard Arnold (name your own) could possibly assert such a description of their opinions: the rest of us are too rancorous, ungenerous, divisive, mean-spirited or (name your vices). In the meantime, I'm looking for a genuinely communist candidate with no links to any form of Stalinism. Until then I'll accept that all candidates will always be a mixed bag!
Stephen Kellett | 10 November 2010

Philip Newman and Terry O'Neill need to get with the program. Asylum seekers are a federal issue. This is a state election. There is little if anything state govts can do to influence asylum seeker policy.
Peter | 10 November 2010

Should the bishops regard it is proper to raise the issues while remaining deathly silent on issues like asylum seekers, indigenoeus peoples,their entry into the debate will be viewed with suspicion. The homeless in Australia, the meagre pension rebate were not issues that arose after the 2007 election. Did we hear a voice from the Bishops in the past and even now?
Blaise | 18 November 2010

Has anyone been watching the pap and nonsense associated with Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee? If I ever hear the words "Amazing", "funtustic"(sic), "Super" or "Fubulous"(Sic), I shall scream! The spectacle of the barge progress and the asinine commentary was better than a bottle of Mogadon! They were banging on about how radiant the queen looked, whereas she actually looked bored stiff, and were a word bubble been blown above her head, she might well have said "Get me the **** out of here!" She looked positively discomforted and anguished by the eulogy given her by her bovine son after the pop concert, populated as it was by a bevy of worn-out geriatric rockers, who looked more like a gaggle of gargoyles than anything worth waiting for! The whole thing has been a huge embarrassment, and makes me wonder why we are so stupid as a nation to be subject to this utter nonsense!
Arthur Hallett-West | 05 June 2012


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