In the chorus of Yes, why aren’t the bishops joining in?

Sep 24, 2023
Metallic crucifix symbol with green tick mark and red X mark.

The official position of the church on the Voice referendum is curious, because, despite overwhelming support for a YES vote from an extraordinary range of Catholic agencies, religious orders and congregations, and voluntary Catholic organisations, the highest national church authority, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, has not followed suit. This is surprising because the whole trajectory of debate within the church seemed to be leading in that direction. Most importantly, the ACBC has not followed the advice of its own Indigenous advisory body despite claiming to listen to it.

When Anthony Albanese announced on August 30 that the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be held on October 14, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) issued a media release advocating a Yes vote. NATSICC said:

Just as the churches strongly supported the 1967 referendum, we hope that Catholics, along with other people of faith, will support the YES campaign.

These words repeated part of the NATSICC contribution to the 2023-24 Social Justice Statement, Listen, Learn, Love: A New Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. NATSICC concluded then in the strongest terms:

We, NATSICC, feel that the referendum is too important to fail. The consequences for our people and the whole nation would be devastating.

In that same statement the Australian bishops, under the heading ‘Learning from our Indigenous Sisters and Brothers’, proclaimed that they

Listen to what the members of NATSICC have shared about the current plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The bishops then outlined the positive trajectory of the church towards the Voice proposal.

In 2021, we endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which speaks of the disempowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and of their hopes for a better future for their young people. The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia also offered its support for the Uluru Statement in 2022.

The Voice referendum in late 2023 will be a significant moment in the struggle for justice by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Yet, despite this, the obvious punchline never came. The bishops did not support the YES campaign, though they had urged a YES vote in the 1967 referendum. Instead, they concluded that the ACBC:

Will not tell Catholics or their fellow Australians how to vote in the referendum. Instead, we ask all Australians to seek out information on the referendum proposal, especially from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

What followed was advice to ‘participate in opportunities for dialogue’, ‘weigh up the arguments and information carefully’, ‘choose the option which you believe offers the best chance of healing and justice for the First Peoples of our land’, and ultimately, ‘let love guide you in making a decision that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to find justice’.

Effectively, despite these fine sentiments, the Catholic bishops appear to be wiping their hands of the referendum choice and have chosen to stand above the fray. This is a strange choice and a missed opportunity to demonstrate that the Catholic approach to justice defines the Voice as a moral question.

As the bishops note in the Social Justice statement, their ultimate position sets them apart, not just from NATSICC, but from many Catholic organisations and a ‘wide range of business, sporting, faith and community organisations’ which support the YES case. Catholics will receive lots of advice explicitly outlining how they should vote, but none from their own church leaders.’

What explains this apparent change of heart and mind by the bishops?

Carefully reading the relevant statements on the Voice by 24 Catholic organisations assembled on its website by Catholic Social Services Victoria, it is hard to avoid asking the question: is this really in line with where the bishops want to be?>

The other two pillars of the church in Australia, Catholic Religious Australia and the Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons, are among the Catholic organisations that appear to support the YES case. I say ‘appear’ only because these statements have been made over several years and while all appear to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart not all specifically yet advocate a YES vote. I imagine that will come during the final referendum campaign itself. Expect many Catholic organisations, including from the school and social services sectors, to campaign hard for a YES vote. Perhaps they will be joined by some individual bishops.

There are three possible reasons why the bishops have effectively stood aloof from the community’s choice on The Voice.

One is that they have chosen not to become involved in what they consider to be a ‘political issue’. Just as they generally haven’t taken sides in party politics since the 1950s, they see the referendum in the same light. They can deal in generalisations and platitudes, as they might on Laudato Si and climate change, while steering clear of backing specific proposals.

As part of this reasoning, they may not accept that the Voice is a moral issue, on which Catholics should take one side. Rather Catholics can vote either YES or NO in good conscience. That is different from encouraging both sides of the debate, as some prominent schools have chosen to do. The bishops could do that and still express a considered opinion, which is not the same as telling Catholics how to vote.

Secondly, the bishops may themselves reflect the divided opinion of the general community. In the Social Justice Statement, they note that many prominent Catholics support the referendum, but some do not. Those who do not include some, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, who are extremely close to certain bishops. There are also Catholic party politicians, like the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce and Senator Matt Canavan, who are strongly against the referendum proposal.

The bishops collectively may have feared that a stronger statement would cause open dissension within their own ranks, which they never like, and lead to strong criticism of them from the Catholic NO side.

Thirdly, the bishops may distinguish between support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart and support for a YES vote. This is the only way to explain the earlier strong statements of support, such as that by Archbishop Mark Coleridge in September 2021 when he endorsed the Statement and called for ‘putting it into action in all ways possible’.

In May this year, after the ACBC plenary meeting, the bishops issued a ‘statement on Indigenous Voice to Parliament’ which encouraged Australians to ‘read and discuss the Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and prefigured the Social Justice Statement. At that time the bishops noted that the Voice to Parliament ‘isn’t the only way to achieve’ recognition of Indigenous custodianship of the land, but that something needed to be done and that the Voice ‘is the way requested by those who gathered at the historic meeting at Uluru.’ The bishops then said sympathetically that The Voice ‘could be a significant step towards a more just and equitable Australia’ and ‘offers a mechanism to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’.

Are the bishops now saying that they now cannot support this Voice as enshrined in the referendum question? This seems to be the only way to explain the apparent discrepancy between what the bishops have now said and the almost unanimous support for the Uluru Statement in July 2022 at the Plenary Council.

The ‘neutral’ position that the bishops have taken does matter. Some Catholics will welcome their position, but many, perhaps most, will not. Many Catholic organisations could interpret this as a slap in the face.

That assumes, of course, that the Social Justice Statement really is neutral and not a statement, despite the bishops’ conclusion, whose substance tilts towards YES. The bishops have, after all given NATSICC a greater platform that they would normally give any agency within the Church.

Whether the bishops’ surprising neutrality makes a difference in the larger scheme of things is hard to predict. Perhaps the days of bishops making a difference are over anyway. This call may hasten their irrelevance. But my hunch is that it will take the support of a majority of Catholics to get this referendum over the line. If it fails, then the fine sentiments of the Social Justice Statement will seem hollow.


First published in Eureka Street September 14, 2023

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