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With less than due respect

  • 20 October 2022
The controversy about the travails of the Essendon Football Club and the brief tenure of its CEO has now drawn to a close. It had everything needed to stir debate: established religion through churches, popular religion through football, competing claims to the moral high ground, corporate practice, industrial relations and buy-in by community leaders. Words flowed copiously. The one thing lacking in much of the debate — though certainly embodied in many of those who commented on it — was a proper respect. That lack of respect may merit reflection.

Respect is properly due to persons. It recognises that each human being is precious, has a unique value, and cannot be treated as a means to another end. Precisely because each person is deserving of respect, their qualities and convictions are also worthy of respect.  Respect begins with persons, not with principles and opinions. They merit respect because they are held by human beings and serve human dignity. Similarly statements by organisations expressing respect for values like gender diversity, racial equality and freedom of religion are persuasive only if they reflect the respectful way in which the organisation treats people within them. Otherwise they will be window-dressing.

A proper respect also extends beyond persons whom we defend to persons with whom we disagree and to the persons whom they defend. Its demands are universal. This is not to say that all opinions have the same value. The point of conversation and debate is to establish the truth. But because persons hold them sincerely, their opinions must be heard seriously and rebutted respectfully.

In many current debates Church spokespersons are criticised for disrespect to persons. Often fairly so. But internal debates within Churches sometimes illuminate what proper respect entails. A particular case in point was the fierce discussion at Vatican II about religious freedom. Catholic teaching rested on the conviction that God had revealed the truth about God and the world through Christ, and that the Catholic Church was the repository of that truth. From this premise it was argued that the State should ideally uphold that truth within a Catholic society. Non-Catholics in theory had no right to religious freedom because error had no rights. In practice, however, in a State where there were many diverse religious groups the State could tolerate diversity of faith in the interests of maintaining social order. Pragmatically religious freedom was allowed to flourish, while doctrinally it was regrettable. The