A new lens on engagement

The Social Justice Statement recently issued by the Catholic Bishops calls for establishing a connection with Indigenous Australians that is based on a love that will bring change to society and politics.


By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ

The Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement appears each year on Social Justice Sunday, which was observed on 27 August this year. The Statement, titled Listen, Learn, Love: A New Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is especially timely. It reflects on the relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians in the light of the coming Referendum on the Voice to Parliament. As the title promises, it looks for a fresh and deeper engagement in that relationship, one based on listening, learning and loving. Both the shape and the argument of the Statement deserve reflection.

The Statement comprises an introduction and foreword, a reflection from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) speaking on the continuing effects on them of European occupation of their lands, another reflection from the Australian Bishops Conference on their engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and suggestions for Catholics to deepen their own engagement.

Both the introduction and the foreword recall significant events in the relationship between the First Peoples and other Australians: the Bringing them Home Report on the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, and the passing of the Referendum to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be reckoned as part of the Australian Population. Each event points forward to the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament: one to the systematic injustice that remains to be set right, and the latter to the hope that the coming Referendum may build on the goodwill shown in the first one. Together they evoke urgency.

The aim of the Statement is to encourage a new engagement based on listening, learning and loving. It is addressed primarily to Catholics and draws on the Catholic tradition. Given that the vast majority of Catholics are non-Indigenous, the engagement naturally emphasises the need for them to listen and learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In speaking of their history and experience of the First Peoples, the NATSICC section discloses through stories the injustice that lies behind their pain and loss, and also their resilience. The story of Uncle Bevan Costello, taken from his family to the notorious Cherbourg Mission, taught in schools, became a community leader, grieved for and worked to reduce the number of youth suicides, and died shortly before the declaration of native title for his tribal country.

The NATSICC contribution then outlines both negative and positive developments in the life of Indigenous people in Australian society and in the Catholic Church. The euphoria of the Apology was followed by the promise and its substantial failure to reduce the gap between the lives of Indigenous and other Australians. It offers ample evidence of the racism in Australia that raises the question of whether Black Lives Matter. Its support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart is encapsulated in the line that there should be ‘Nothing about us without us.’

The Bishops acknowledge the faults of the past, but also tell stories of how some have listened and learned, notably Archbishop John Bede Polding, who spoke passionately of the injustice involved in the treatment of Indigenous Australians. They ground the call to engagement through listening, learning and loving in the Old Testament Prophets’ rejection of religion without justice and in Jesus’ insistence on right relationships.

The heart of the Bishops’ message lies in an engagement with Indigenous Australians that is based not on distance nor the desire to help but on a love that will permeate and bring change to society and its politics.

This is a love which does not patronise or pity Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It is a love which seeks them out where they are, listens to them and learns from their great wisdom and which walks with them to a place where we are together freed from every injustice and oppression.

This call underlines the Bishops’ endorsement of the importance and authority of the Uluru Statement from the Heart that provides the basis for the Referendum question. While acknowledging the differences of opinion about the Referendum, they insist that in voting we should ask what represents best the hopes and aspirations of Indigenous Australians and will bring them healing and justice.

The document concludes by suggesting ways in which we can enter and deepen our engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through listening, learning and loving.

My first response on reading the Statement was that it was a little bland. It seemed to understate the injustice and suffering of the First Peoples at the hands of Australian society and the Church and to emphasise tolerance for other views more than insistence on the importance of the passing of the Referendum.

On a closer reading I appreciated the novelty of the Statement and the ambition of its goal. The Bishops broke new ground by including voices other than their own in the actual writing of the Statement. The joint presentation embodied the theme of a new engagement based on listening and learning. Viewed from this perspective, the understated tone of the document could be seen to provide the atmosphere necessary for listening and learning. It also echoed, by intention or coincidence, Pope Francis’ emphasis on the process of synodality and the priority he gives to pastoral commendation over doctrinal declaration.

The re-reading of the Statement, too, drew my attention to the authorities quoted in it. These always clarify the intention of Church documents. The Statement refers to trenchant judgments by Patrick Dodson, the radical solidarity with the First Peoples of Archbishop Polding, the opening words of the Vatican Council document on the Church in the Modern World – the charter for Catholic reflection on social justice, Pope John Paul II’s speech at Alice Springs, the words of Prophet Amos lacerating the people for a religiosity that neglected the dire need of the poor, uncompromising words by Indigenous writers Noel  Pearson and Lilla Watson and anthropologist William Stanner, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

All these people and the words quoted were countercultural and controversial in their day and most remain so in the present context. When brought together, they give the Statement a radical edge. They prepare for the demanding criterion by which we should measure our vote:

Choose the option which you believe offers the best chance of healing and justice for the First Peoples of our land.

Feature photo by David McMahon.

View the launch of the Social Justice Statement 2023-24 below:

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