Catholic Plenary Council – an opportunity for Indigenous reconciliation

Jul 1, 2021

It is encouraging that the Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document) of the Catholic Plenary Council due to meet in October 2021 affirms, “We honour and acknowledge the continuing deep
spiritual relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to this country and commit ourselves to the ongoing journey of reconciliation”.

The Document makes several other respectful references to Indigenous Australians. A key theme is ‘renewing the Church’s solidarity with First Australians”, indicating the Council “may prioritise the question of how the Church can include and empower First Peoples to take their place more fully within Church and society.” Most promisingly, it considers the Council “an opportunity for the Catholic Church in Australia to make a public response to the Statement from the Heart and increase opportunities for collaboration with local Indigenous communities around the country”.

A Plenary Council is the highest formal gathering of all local churches in Australia (hereafter ‘the Church’). Its objective is to have a dialogue and make binding decisions about the future of the Church. It is a rare opportunity, only the fifth ever. The previous one was in 1937! This Council can be one of the great turning points in history, emulating the wonderful Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu!

While the Document would be familiar to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous delegates, it is probably less so to Catholics, even regular Sunday Mass attendants, and largely unknown to  non-Catholics. The wider community, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, may not even be aware of the Council!

It needs much more coverage from the pulpit, and the media, Catholic and general. The response to the Statement must aim to meet its aspirations – Voice  Treaty Truth. The Council is a timely forum to listen to the Voice of Indigenous delegates and provides a forum for eliciting the Truth and  can be the start of the ongoing journey towards a Treaty between the  Church and Indigenous Australians. Auspiciously, the Church’s  Reconciliation Sacrament, with its specific steps – examination of   conscience, confession of sins, repentance, purpose of amendment and  reparation is an excellent guide for this journey.

Examination draws out Truth, starting with the doctrine of Discovery, the foundation stone of the edifice of terra nullius. A pedant might argue that the culprit church in Australia was Anglican, not Catholic. While literally so – the Anglican Church might consider its own examination – the original sin was conceived and committed by Rome. Papal bulls, starting with Dum Diversas in 1452, called for non-Christian peoples to be “invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs”. This encouraged predatory laws that, despite Mabo, remain the basis of ‘ownership’ of much of Australia’s lands and waters. Moreover, the Church was complicit in abetting this theft, itself acquiring vast tracts of aboriginal land, now worth billions or more, with no, or inadequate, compensation. Discovery also justified other sins – forced conversion, enslavement, incarceration, abduction etc. – because Indigenous peoples required Christian evangelisation.

Confession and Repentance require the Church to publicly acknowledge all its numerous mortal sins against Indigenous Australians, expressing unqualified remorse for them. This could be done publicly during the Council, with all participants, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, taking the place of the Confessor in the Sacrament. Publicising Council deliberations on Reconciliation in the Media, Pastoral Letters and Sermons would raise awareness of Australians, Catholics or otherwise of this seminal development.

Purpose of Amendment – commitment to sin no more – can only be effective if it revokes the original sin, Discovery, thus removing the temptation to sin again. The Council should resolve to urge the Pope, the ultimate authority over the doctrine, to rescind it ex cathreda.

On this fundamental moral issue, Australia is a laggard. Search ‘Discovery Catholic Bishops Canada Lorretto Community’ and find numerous bodies, Christian and non-Christian, religious and lay, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, even the UN, urging rescission. Searching ‘Discovery Catholic Bishops Australia’ reveals the discovery of gold! Pope Francis raised hopes of rescission in Bolivia in 2018, saying, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America”. Sadly, despite numerous pleas from Indigenous people the world over, rescission seems off the Pope’s agenda. The Council must put it back!

Reparation, or making good, is the Church’s biggest challenge, requiring it to commit to restorative justice for all the wrongs it now wants forgiven. However, as with the Sacrament, reparation is a prerequisite for forgiveness. In the context of the Statement from the Heart, Treaty would include what and how much Reparation would be. While the Treaty the Statement envisages is primarily between Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Australian Governments, it doesn’t preclude other negotiated settlements. The Church has an unprecedented opportunity to set an example of  goodwill and good faith that our governments, institutions and the rest of us occupiers can follow.

Even if adequate compensation is beyond the Church’s capacity, this is no different from damages civil courts routinely impose on commercial organisations guilty of large-scale damage. Also, the Church is far from poor. It has a vast property portfolio of buildings, (all constructed on indigenous land), many of which are increasingly underutilised due to diminishing congregations, that can be put to more productive use. For example, single-use buildings used for weekend services only, could be put to beneficial use during the working week. Catholic educational and health  institutions could provide subsidised services to close the gap between Indigenous Australians and the wider community. The faithful could make generous voluntary contributions too.

We non-Indigenous Australians are also extremely fortunate that our Indigenous brothers and sisters have an ingrained culture of community and sharing, entirely different from the adversarial game that exemplifies western, especially colonial, disputation. Makaratta is about coming together after a struggle. It is a beautiful synonym for Reconciliation!

The Council is a Carpe Diem opportunity for the Church.

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