Social Justice Statement 2003: a response from Bishop Saunders

Social Justice Statement 2003: a response from Bishop Saunders

It is unfortunate that Richard Egan's article regarding the Australian Catholic Bishops' Social Justice Statement (November AD2000) presented such a biased reading of a thoughtful and hope-filled message. The Bishops' Statement - A Generous Heart in the Love of Christ - recounts our history of cultural diversity from European settlement and recognises that, in very significant respects, this is to be celebrated. There are aspects of this history that do not inspire pride in our nation and call for reconciliation.

Some of the issues addressed in the Statement continue to be the subject of vigorous public debate, yet this should not prevent the Bishops giving consideration to the issues and speaking on them. We addressed the moral, not political, implications of circumstances facing the community.


In reflecting on Australia's past, the Statement's consideration of the treatment of Indigenous communities fairly represents what happened. Recognition that Aborigines were massacred is hardly to subscribe to the so-called "black armband" view of history, as Mr Egan called it. Current debate on this issue has turned to question the reliability of available evidence on the extent of such events - not whether they actually occurred.

The account given of the distress associated with the separation of Aboriginal children from their families is well documented and does not amount to "emotionally laden terminology". No one denies the significant contribution of the Church in the area of ministry to Indigenous people in Australia. As a Missionary with over 28 years experience in the field, I am as conscious of our achievements as I am of our mistakes, no matter how noble our intentions.

Against the Bishops' observation that it is unfair to identify terrorism with Islam, Mr Egan refers to aspects of Islam (in passages of the Quran and the life of Mohammed) in which there is "a strain of thinking that endorses the use of force against unbelievers" and to Islamic schools which foster terrorism. It is appropriate to restate the words of the Bishops, that "it has been all too easy to identify Islam with terrorism" and "that many terrorists invoke Islam to justify their violence should not discredit the religion".

The Holy Father has been a strong advocate for dialogue between the two religions and, in March this year, a joint statement issued by the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue stressed a shared rejection of violence against the human person. This Islamic-Catholic statement urged an understanding of sacred texts in their proper contexts and viewed the use of passages in Scripture to legitimise violence as being contrary to the spirit of our religions.

For Mr Egan to suggest that the Bishops' call for Catholics to help define what is acceptable political behaviour is "explicit intervention in party politics" and "a thinly veiled allegation that John Howard's 2002 election victory was morally illegitimate", is absolutely false. The treatment or portrayal of certain vulnerable groups by more than one political party and at all levels of government has at times been a cause for great concern. To say that the faithful have a role in helping to define what is acceptable political behaviour recognises the obvious role they have in the political life of the community, guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience. Mr Egan should rest assured - there is no veiled criticism of a particular leader or political party.

Challenge of racism

When my brother Bishops and I endorsed the 2003 Social Justice Statement as our own we recognised the need to address in a pastoral manner the challenge of racism in Australia today. The invitation extended to Catholics, and other Australians, to consider what can be done to foster a more welcoming environment in this great nation is not one that can be reduced to "political correctness" or "partisan political opinion".

In expressing the hope that this year's Social Justice Sunday Statement "will sink without trace" and asserting that this was the fate of last year's, Mr Egan shows how little he appreciates that both documents support teachings promoted strongly by the Pope and that they are both so relevant to Australian society today. In the words of the 2003 Statement: "May Christians, in the love of Christ, set an example of openness and generosity towards our fellow inhabitants of every race and background".

Bishop Christopher Saunders is the Bishop of Broome and Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, North Sydney, NSW.

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