Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Julian SieberOctober 26, 2023
Indigenous women sit on a bench at a polling place in Sydney as Australians cast votes on Oct. 14, 2023, in a referendum that sought to enshrine an advocacy committee for Indigenous peoples in that nation’s Constitution. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)Indigenous women sit on a bench at a polling place in Sydney as Australians cast votes on Oct. 14, 2023, in a referendum that sought to enshrine an advocacy committee for Indigenous peoples in that nation’s Constitution. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

On Oct. 14, Australians voted down the “Voice to Parliament” referendum, which would have enshrined a voice for the First Nations in Australia’s Constitution. But even if it had passed, the referendum would have been only a starting point toward the goal of empowering First Nations peoples and improving the living conditions of Indigenous communities. In the wake of the referendum’s defeat, Australia still has an opportunity to reflect upon the path of reckoning with its violent colonial history.

This moment also represents an opportunity to discern how Catholic social teaching may inform a Catholic perspective on First Nations sovereignty, and on how the global church can begin walking a way of recognition and reconciliation, as encouraged by Pope Francis.

In the wake of the referendum’s defeat, Australia still has an opportunity to reflect upon the path of reckoning with its violent colonial history.

The Voice to Parliament referendum proposed the establishment of an advisory body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to represent the needs and wishes of Indigenous communities and proposed to recognize First Nations people in the Constitution for the first time. This advisory body would have offered a new level of continuity that could resist the deleterious shifts in policies deemed best by each successive government. The referendum was a direct answer by the government to the “Uluru Statement From the Heart,” a document presented in 2017 to the Australian government by a convention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. That statement calls for the discernment of a way for the sovereignty of First Nations peoples to coexist with the sovereignty of the Australian government in order to have the means to control and preserve their future, ancestral lands and lifeways.

The appropriate Catholic approach to this must be rooted in one of the central principles of Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that decisions affecting a community should be made at the “lowest” level possible. The goal is to have as few degrees of separation as possible between a community and those who make decisions on behalf of that community. This should mean more self-representation and self-determinacy for First Nations communities.

Subsidiarity is the idea that decisions affecting a community should be made at the “lowest” level possible. This should mean more self-representation and self-determinacy for First Nations communities.

But the First Nations movement is about more than survival or self-determination; it is nothing less than a dream of full thriving. As the Uluru Statementputs it: “We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.” The statement is an invitation by representatives of Australia’s First Nations to walk together to a more just future of stronger truth-telling and agreement-making.

Following what will be a period of grieving for many, the path forward needs to be discerned anew in light not only of the referendum results, but also of the divisive and ugly rhetoric used by opponents. The stark duality of the two checkboxes on the ballot left little room for nuance in an exceptionally complex issue, instead allowing it to become an effective vessel for misinformation, racism and polarizing statements.

A couple of months before the vote on the referendum, for example, former Prime Minister John Howard said that British colonization was “inevitable” and “the luckiest thing that happened to this country.” This kind of racist ideology fueled untrue claims about the Voice referendum, such as that it would create a two-tiered society in which First Nations peoples would be given special privileges, and that it would cause other Australians to lose access to “their” beaches.

How Australians, particularly Australian Catholics, respond in light of the referendum’s defeat will reflect either acceptance or rejection of Pope Francis’ calls for genuine dialogue, and for the acknowledgment of the sins of European colonization and the Catholic Church. Last year, the pope’s visit to Canada featured an apology to First Nations peoples for the horrors and abuses of forced assimilation and Christian boarding schools, as well as a denunciation of the doctrine of discovery, which the church issued in the 15th century to justify the colonization of Indigenous peoples. In his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Francis also called those living on Indigenous peoples’ land to “show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions” (No. 146).

Pope Francis’ message is a step toward reconciliation and justice-seeking, but many have expressed skepticism as to whether these words will be followed up with further action.

Pope Francis’ message is a step toward reconciliation and justice-seeking, but many have expressed skepticism as to whether these words will be followed up with further action by national governments, a skepticism that may deepen after the outcome of the referendum in Australia. This is a familiar dynamic for Australians, who saw the government in 2008 under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd give an official apology to First Nations peoples—addressed particularly to the Stolen Generations, the victims of forced child-removal during most of the 20th century. As the Uluru Statement made clear, this apology did not eliminate the many forms of adversity that First Nations peoples continue to face.

In order to take the call to dialogue seriously, Catholics must be wary of non-Indigenous politicians and public figures who claim to speak on behalf of First Nations communities. Responsible discernment involves seeking the array of opinions expressed from within First Nations communities rather than accepting uncritically what non-Indigenous Australians claim to be the wishes of all First Nations peoples. The requisite first step of dialogue is a commitment to stop and truly listen.

In Pope John Paul II’s 1986 address to First Nations peoples in Alice Springs, he had a blunt message for Australians and Catholics worldwide:

Let it not be said that the fair and equitable recognition of Aboriginal rights to land is discrimination. To call for the acknowledgment of the land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination. Certainly, what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow.

Almost 40 years later, his words are disturbingly pertinent, a shocking witness to the lack of reconciliation, subsidiarity and sovereignty gained.

The Voice to Parliament referendum was far from perfect. Like the 1967 referendum aimed at changing the Constitution to improve the conditions of First Nations peoples, it asked the entire country to decide the fate of a minority population and offered little certainty regarding future action. But there is still a Catholic responsibility to do everything possible to confront the irreparable sins of the past. In a post-Voice Australia, the Uluru Statement, alongside Catholic social teaching, continues to call for true subsidiarity.

While many individual Catholics throughout the world may wonder what exactly they can do to foster healing after the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, an enormous issue in which the church is implicated, Australian Catholics have the opportunity to enter into a time of discernment and action. In order to move forward, the issue of a voice for the First Nations must not be seen as settled by a single referendum. Instead, we need an urgent dialogue toward faith, justice and solidarity.

What can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow, indeed.

The latest from america

The head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication has defended his department's use of expelled Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik’s artwork in its official materials.
Colleen DulleJune 21, 2024
A conversation with Rachel L. Swarns, the author of "The 272: The Families Who were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church"
JesuiticalJune 21, 2024
Spanish Jesuit Luis María Roma, who died in 2019, was recently discovered to have abused hundreds of Indigenous girls while serving as a missionary in rural Bolivia, and to have documented his acts in a diary.
Members of Coro y Orquesta Misional San Xavier perform the opera “San Francisco Xavier” at the Church of San Xavier in the town of San Javier, Bolivia, on April 23. 2024.
The opera ‘San Xavier’ provides a glimpse of how Jesuits evangelized with music—a key dimension of the 1986 film “The Mission.”