Social Justice Statements: in whose name should they be published?

Social Justice Statements: in whose name should they be published?

Richard Egan

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released their latest Social Justice Sunday Statement in September. It is titled A generous heart in the love of Christ: challenging racism in Australia today.

The Statement's broad principles certainly reflect Catholic teaching: that we ought to welcome the stranger; not exclude others or deny them fundamental personal rights on the grounds of race, colour, language or religion; and respect the right to freedom of religion.

But the Statement has embedded this teaching within an account of "welcome and exclusion" in Australian history and contemporary society which is most notable for asserting as fact several theses that continue to be subject to vigorous public debate.

In regard to the interaction between British settlers and Aborigines, the Statement presents as a fact that "in many parts of Australia there were massacres and incidents of a kind that are more common in civil war than in peace". Yet the extent, nature and causes of these "incidents" are presently the subject of a major debate between historians. Would all our bishops really wish to underwrite the "black armband" view of Australian history so unreflectively as this passage suggests?

The document also makes sweeping generalisations, e.g., "In the Australian situation the dominant regarded the others [Aborigines] as racially and culturally inferior, destined to die out because of their inferiority"; as well as emotionally laden terminology, e.g., "The powerful white settlers removed children from their distressed families" - seemingly oblivious to the contested nature of these "stolen generation" claims.

The Statement appears to contradict itself on how the marriages of Aborigines should have been handled by earlier bishops and the missionaries serving under them. In one passage there is praise for "loving relationships and marriages that crossed racial boundaries". (Does this include non-marital relationships?)

But just a few sentences on there is regret that missionaries did not respect "the marriage customs of the Indigenous peoples". As well as supporting child marriages (with girls frequently as young as ten and sometimes younger being required to have sex with their betrothed husbands who were usually much older), forced marriages, and in some cases polygamy, these customs certainly forbade interracial marriage, especially that based on an Aboriginal woman choosing a white husband on her own initiative.

Missionaries, we are told, "were commonly disappointed at the lack of impact they believed they had made on the people whom they served" and that, "in turn, the Indigenous people saw the missionaries as a source of material goods, but also as agents of an excluding and uncomprehending culture." This summary seems to ignore completely the dramatic success of missionaries in imparting the faith to Aborigines and to minimise the genuine commitment to Catholic faith so evident in many Aborigines today.

The Statement is surely being disingenuous when it merely notes in an aside to a gushing endorsement of multiculturalism that "multiculturalism has been controversial in its detail." What of the debate about the fundamental meaning of multiculturalism and whether political or ideological multiculturalism necessarily involves moral and cultural relativism so that there is no sense in which it is right to claim that Western civilisation or the Australian way of life is superior, say, to African tribalism?

It is claimed that it is wrong to suggest a connection between Islam and terrorism and that there is no difficulty reconciling Islam and Australian values. This is naive and misleading.

It is certainly true that the majority of Muslims, in Australia as elsewhere, are peaceable, law-abiding citizens. However, it is also true that there is in Islam, rooted in passages of the Quran and the life of Mohammed, a strain of thinking that endorses the use of force against unbelievers. (And the relationship between the IRA and Catholicism is very different from the relationship between Al Qaeda and Islam).

There are Islamic schools throughout the world, including the West, that are fostering the kind of Islamic thinking which justifies a terrorist war on the West. Ignoring this reality is not the way to secure peaceful relationships between Muslims and other Australians.

Party politics

The Statement then asserts, in perhaps the most explicit intervention in party politics since the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace's attack on Hewson's Fightback two days before the 1993 Federal election, "Church groups can and must define what is acceptable political behaviour. In times of insecurity, politicians are always tempted to find scapegoats against whom to direct community anger. Immigrants, Indigenous Australians and refugees are easy targets. When we believe that politicians are attacking vulnerable groups for electoral gain, as has happened at times in recent years, we must show our concern at such unacceptable behaviour."

If this is not a thinly veiled allegation that John Howard's 2002 election victory was morally illegitimate, what is it?

A few days after the present Statement was issued, David Burchell wrote in The Australian (with no reference to this Statement), of the view of certain academics: "According to this view, the real purpose of the Federal Government's immigration policies is not border protection or reason of state but, Hitler-style, to stir up and unleash deep-seated psychic needs and fears in the Australian population. These fears can be combated only by thorough-going education campaigns in inter-ethnic tolerance and multicultural harmony to overcome the deep-seated psychic ailments of Australians less enlightened than themselves."

He noted that "the recurring theme in Australian social attitude surveys on immigration, multiculturalism and asylum-seeking is of a desire for balance, moderation and limits ... Whatever else they may be, Australians are not extremists in such matters. Neither is there any compelling evidence to suggest that public opinion has shifted dramatically on these questions during the past couple of years."

The alignment of the present Social Justice Statement with the elitist opinion, common in certain academic, media and judicial groups, that Australians are unreconstructed racists in need of lecturing on how to be more "welcoming" from those more enlightened than themselves, does its authors no credit whatever.

These and other aspects of the present Social Justice Statement further underline the need for the Australian Catholic bishops to either distance themselves from any such future documents or ensure that what is published in their collective name is worthy of their role and stature as successors of the Apostles.

Ideological bias

As with last year's statement on the environment, which treated as fact such contentious topics as "global warming", political correctness and ideological bias have been again well to the fore, along with little evidence of serious research.

One can only hope that like last year's Statement, this one will sink without a trace.

In fairness to the Australian bishops as a whole, each Statement originates from the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, which, while notionally accountable to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, connects indirectly via the Bishops Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace. So the document's description as a Statement of the Australian Bishops is a misnomer.

While each bishop is given a draft of the Statement in advance, with the request for comments and suggestions, the end result does not appear to reflect the reservations many bishops doubtless feel concerning the debatable opinions to be published under their name.

Perhaps it is time the bishops required future documents to be released under the name of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. Otherwise, a false orthodoxy - particularly in Catholic schools - can easily be attributed to what are often merely partisan political opinions.

Richard Egan is WA State President of the National Civic Council

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