Answering in Good Conscience, “with discernment and moderation” – Who is my neighbour?

A Benedictine Conversation: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World

Good Samaritans’ Benedictine Spirituality Series

Five Dock

13 March 2007

Fr Frank Brennan SJ

Source: Sisters of the Good Samaritan,

I dedicate this lecture to Liz O’Neill, the Australian embassy official from Jakarta who died in last week’s Garuda crash at Yogyakarta.  Liz worked with us at Uniya the Jesuit Social Justice Centre and in the Jesuit Refugee Service, here and in Hong Kong.  She then joined the Department of Foreign Affairs, and did great work in Jakarta through the time of the Bali bombings, the bombing of the Australian embassy, and the tsunami.  Her parents are strong parishioners at St Canices in Kings Cross, the church from which she will be buried on Friday.  Liz was the first person who worked with me in the office who highlighted the generation gap.  She was forever young.  She had great spirit and humour.  Having just given birth to her daughter last year, she has been taken from us much too young.  May she rest in peace, and may all who mourn her passing be inspired to reach out to the other as their neighbour.

 Monasticism existed long before Benedict formulated his Rule.  The New Catholic Encyclopaedia tells us that what gives the rule of Benedict its exceptional quality is his reliance on “discretion, in the double sense of the word: discernment and moderation”.  The Rule of Benedict opens with the word “Listen” and “this is the key to Benedict’s whole spiritual teaching” – “inclining the ear of the heart”.  We are called to listen in silence, to listen to the silence, and to respond with discernment and moderation.  Two years ago I was fortunate to take my life for a long walk.  I did the Camino to Santiago d’Compastella – over 800 km from the French border to Santiago in 26 days.  With my travelling companion, I came to Samos, the Benedictine monastery which was home for Dom Salvado before he came to Australia and established the monastery at New Norcia, in Western Australia, about as far from Norcia as you could get.  Samos is place of great tranquillity, silence, and stability.  It spoke to me of tradition and stability, change and mission.  Being a Jesuit, I profess no expertise in Benedictine spirituality but like most Australian Catholics I owe a debt of gratitude to the Good Samaritan Sisters who are celebrating 150 years of service in this land.  Having recently published a book entitled Acting on Conscience and having just returned from a month in Papua, I am delighted to honour the Good Sams by this address entitled “Answering in Good Conscience – Who is my neighbour?”

Acting on Conscience

The New Catholic Encyclopaedia tells us, “It is God who is the primary author of life for Benedict’s disciples; hence the monk’s obedience is above all to God and God’s word which the monk finds mediated into his life through a wide variety of persons and experiences – in the rule, in the abbot, in the community as a whole, in the young and the old, in the sick and in guests, in liturgy of the hours and in personal prayer, in sacred reading, in work and in silence.”

Religious views will enjoy an enhanced place at the table of public deliberation in a pluralist democracy if religious leaders encourage their members to participate in the life of the nation state, engaging in the controversies of the moment, forming and informing their consciences about the good and the true.  Religious views will be less relevant, and even ruled ineligible for a place at the table of public deliberation, if religious leaders insist that their members simply follow hierarchical directives regardless of their own formed and informed conscientious view about the true and the good.  Many religious citizens will look to their leaders for guidance about the applicable values, hierarchy of values and principles to be applied to policy, law and administration questions.  But they will insist on their own self-determination as citizens and their own non-delegable duty to fulfil their public trust when they occupy public positions in the nation state.  It is catastrophic when the individual’s freedom of conscience is violated by a religious authority acting in the public forum beyond their competence.

The possible conflict between conscience and religious authority was highlighted in the dispute between British Prime Minister W Gladstone and John Henry Newman who had left the Anglican Church and joined the Roman Catholic Church.  The First Vatican Council in 1870 taught that the Pope could define infallibly “a doctrine of faith or morals”.  Gladstone feared that “no one can now become (a Catholic) without renouncing his moral and mental freedom, and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another.” [1]   Newman refuted this fear conceding that there may be “extreme cases in which conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word.” [2]   He asserted that “infallibility alone would block the exercise of conscience” but that “the Pope is not infallible in that subject matter in which conscience is of supreme authority” and thus “no dead-lock, such as is implied in the objection ...can take place between conscience and the pope.” [3]   Newman’s confidence that there would be no prospect of an overlap, let alone a conflict, between the matters on which the Pope would speak infallibly and the matters on which the citizen would have to decide political and moral questions accounts for his notorious declaration: [4]

Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink - to the Pope if you please, - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

Neither Gladstone nor Newman perceived the extent to which the state might legislate in centuries to come about all manner of things.  Newman had no idea about the range of issues on which subsequent popes would issue declarations not just on the faith but in relation to morals, and in considerable detail.  Newman would have been surprised by some of the contemporary claims that the popes have taught infallibly on a vast range of moral issues, including contraception. [5]   He would have had no comprehension that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would issue very detailed guidelines on law and policy, providing guidance for Catholic politicians having to vote on vexed moral and political questions.  Newman was confident that there would be little overlap between the state’s law and policy and church teaching.  He thought there ought to be little overlap.  He thought Gladstone was being censorious.  But given that there now is overlap, there is a need to investigate the restrictions on conscience so as to determine if Gladstone’s fears now have substance.

Here on the other side of the globe 130 years later, there has been some suggestion that there is a competition between conscience and truth, only one of which can enjoy primacy.  Some Catholics like Cardinal Pell think other Catholics would do better if they stopped talking about the primacy of conscience.  Others think there is a need for more emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience over against the directives, witness and actions of bishops and even the Pope if we are to have any chance of discerning and living out the complex truth of our life project as citizens of a pluralist democracy.  I am one of those others.

There is a conflict in the Australian Catholic community about the primacy of conscience.  It may simply be a difference of perspective, some seeing the glass half-full and warning against the limits of conscience in coming to truth, and others seeing the glass half-empty and espousing the potential of conscience in living the truth. For some years now, Archbishop George Pell has been eloquently blunt suggesting that the notion be ditched. In his 1999 Acton Lecture he said: [6]

Catholics should stop talking about the primacy of conscience.  This has never been a Catholic doctrine (although this point generally cuts little ice).  Moreover, such language is not conducive to identifying what contributes to human development. It is a short cut, which often leads the uninitiated to feel even more complacent while “doing their own thing”.

Then in May 2003, Cardinal Pell took his assault on the primacy of conscience one step further when he said: [7]

In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped.  I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.

The Cardinal has been rightly anxious to avoid the situation in which “conscience would become personal preference – a polite term for ‘doing it my way’, and clear thinking and past wisdom would be repudiated and ridiculed.” [8]  

We can espouse the primacy of conscience without abandoning a commitment to clear thinking and past wisdom.  The human person is a moral agent who is shaped by his actions.  By forming and informing her conscience, the human person is deciding not only what she wants to do but also who she wants to be.  It is not only the mind or the will that acts morally but the whole person.  As the person changes and grows, the conscience is formed and grows too.  So each conscience is unique as each person is unique.  In the Catholic tradition, the conscience is sacred ground where the person meets God; all others (including church authorities), unless invited in, are trespassers in this place.  Pope Pius XII described conscience as “a sanctuary on the threshold of which all must halt, even, in the case of a child, his father and mother.” [9]   John Henry Newman had earlier defined conscience “not as a fancy or an opinion, but as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us.” [10]   The Catholic view of conscience holds in tension the dignity and freedom of the human person, the teaching authority of the Church, and the search for truth and the good.  The tension arises because the Catholic concedes not only the possibility but also the common reality of the incompletely formed conscience which may receive guidance from the Church's teaching authority.  This tension accounts for the Catholic Church's unequivocal affirmation of the primacy of individual conscience against the State together with its occasional ambivalence about the role of conscience in relation to Church authority.

The conscientious Catholic would deviate from church teaching on moral issues only with deep regret and after careful attention to the developing and changing situation, and only on condition that he is satisfied that he has a greater command of the facts or of his situation than the Church authority issuing universal declarations faithful to a constant tradition. The Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Freedom said, “In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church.  For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth.” [11]   However, in changing times or particular personal circumstances, there may be true doubt about the certain doctrine of the Church and its application to the changing circumstances.  Changes to church teaching about slavery and usury were preceded by persons of good conscience acting at variance with traditional teaching.

Conscience is engaged when the person looking ahead, asks “What should I do or not do?”, or when the person looking back asks, “Should I have done that or not done that?”  There are two extremes to be avoided in answering these questions.  The person may be tempted simply to do his own thing, choosing according to his own preference on the basis that there is no objective truth or verifiable good.  Or the agent may woodenly apply the prescriptions of authority, including church authority, without attending to the voice of conscience urging him to do the greater good or to be prophetic, not just complying with the mores of his society or church community.  Ideally, the actor will follow his conscience.

One does not have to be a natural law theorist to affirm a law implanted in the human heart commanding the person, in freedom, to seek the truth, to do good and to avoid evil.  In the very act of seeking the truth and trying to do good, the person further forms and informs her conscience.  But what is truth?  What is the good in this particular situation? In the Catholic tradition, the person is guided and even directed in the formation and informing of conscience by the Church authorities.  Traditionally, the church authorities claim to teach not only that which is revealed in the scriptures but also that which can be derived from the natural law by reflecting on the ends for which man is created.  Many Catholics now share the contemporary era's pessimism about an all-embracing natural law based on a single static human nature that permits a wholesale determination of what is right and wrong in each and every situation.  That pessimism is heightened when the church hierarchy’s reading of what is natural differs from that of other persons who in good faith reflect on their own human reality, concluding that what is natural to the church hierarchy is not self-evidently natural to them.

Ultimately every person is obliged to follow their conscience even if that conscience be erroneous.  When making a decision to act or to refrain from an action, in good conscience, the Catholic actor is obliged to consider the church teaching on the matter at hand.  Before becoming pope, Pope Benedict XVI provided a good rule of thumb on conscience: “A man of conscience is one who never acquires tolerance, well-being, success, public standing, and approval on the part of prevailing opinion at the expense of the truth.” [12]   Saint Augustine taught that “there is no soul, however perverted, ... in whose conscience God does not speak.” [13] Thomas Aquinas taught that a person must always follow their conscience even if that conscience be erroneous.  For “when a reason which is in error proposes something as a command of God, then to dismiss the dictate or reason is just the same as dismissing the command of God.” [14]

The Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Freedom in 1965 teaches: [15]

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.

Cardinal Pell insists that this Vatican Council declaration does not deal with the relationship between church members and the church authorities.  He confines its scope to “relationships between state and Church, and between state and individual.” [16]   He does concede that John Courtney Murray SJ, who was a key adviser on the text of the Declaration, predicted that the Declaration would have a profound ripple effect and that “Inevitably, a great second argument will be set afoot – now on the theological meaning of Christian freedom”. [17]   The Church teaching on conscience gives no consolation to the uninitiated, thinking they can simply do their own thing.  But neither does it accord religious authorities the liberty of insisting upon wooden compliance with their instruction or view of the world.  Some religious authorities like Cardinal George Pell take a more restrictive approach.  He says: [18]

While we should follow a well-formed conscience, a well-formed conscience is hard to achieve.  And if we suspect - as surely we all sometimes must - that our conscience is under-formed or malformed in some area, then we should follow a reliable authority until such time as we can correct our consciences.  And for Catholics, the most reliable authority is the Church.

It is too simplistic to resolve the tension between conscience, authority and truth to urge: “When in doubt, follow the bishops.”  The bishops may be right; they often are.  But then again, they may be wrong, as the Vatican authorities have been in dealing with the AIDS pandemic.

Truth enjoys primacy.  The problem is when truth is contested.  What then is to enjoy primacy of method for the individual Catholic wanting to act in accordance with the truth?  Is primacy to be accorded to the formed and informed conscience of the individual or to the non-infallible statement of the Pope, Vatican dicastery or bishop?  I opt for the former, insisting that the conscientious Catholic would seek guidance from the latter while not acting in accordance with the latter should such a directive be contrary to the individual’s formed and informed conscience.  I have not seen this merely as a personal view but as an expression of Church teaching. 

Bishop Anthony Fisher has put the issue well for all Catholics in his speech delivered in Rome last month.  He said: [19]

[T]he Church maintains its high view of the dignity of conscience. From this several things follow:
-- that we must do our best to cultivate a well-formed and well-informed conscience in ourselves and those we influence;
-- that we must take responsibility for our actions and thus always seek seriously to discern what is the right choice to make;
-- that we should seek to resolve doubt rather than act upon it;
-- that we must follow the last and best judgment of our conscience even if, unbeknownst to us, it is objectively in error;
-- that we must do so in all humility, aware that our choice may be wrong and so be ready, if we later realize it is, to repent and start afresh; and
-- that we should avoid coercing people's consciences: People should if possible be persuaded rather than forced to live well and so be given a certain latitude.

These six dot points are a very useful guide for working our way through the complex morass which is the relationship between conscience and authority, not just in the discussion about personal morality but also in the public debate about law and policy.  In good conscience I have to decide who is my neighbour, and I have to act accordingly, with moderation and discernment. 

Discerning who is my Neighbour?

Last week, I was flying home from West Papua.  After one landing, a Garuda flight attendant sat down, next to me.  I told her that I was sad because my friend Liz O’Neill had died in the tragic plane accident at Yogyakarta thirty six hours before.  She then told me that she too had lost a friend who had been a flight attendant on that plane. 

We held hands briefly.  It was a graced moment.  Liz would have smiled – Liz whose human touch constantly broke through barriers and brought people together in the midst of tragedy.  I will always treasure Liz:

-the daughter and sister schooled in faith,

-the wife and mother nurtured in love,

-the friend and diplomat dedicated to hope in our shared humanity.

She spent these last years dedicated to creating good relations between neighbours, between Australia and Indonesia, especially in the midst of tragedy.  Inspired by Liz’s life and example, let’s now consider the parable of the Good Samaritan:

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two silver coins. and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."  Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Lk 11:29-37)

Every time we go into the centre of Sydney we pass people on busy street corners who are asking for money.  They have cardboard signs describing their plight.  If you are like me, you give thanks that there are fewer of them than on the streets of Washington or New York.  You are grateful that we do not live in too cold a climate.  An Irish Jesuit, peter McVerry who worked with the homeless in Balymun, the high rise estate which used be outside Dublin, once commented to me, “There is no comparison between being poor and homeless in a cold climate and in a warm one.”  If you are like me, you probably think to yourself, “There are appropriate welfare services available for these people and they get enough social security payment if only they are careful in their spending.”  You might even justify yourself by making a regular appearance as a volunteer at Matt Talbot or some other similar institution.  But there is no getting away from the fact that the person before me is my neighbour.  If you asked him at the end of the day, “Who was neighbour to you today?”, he would not answer, “The well dressed chap who had a very considered look on his face as he walked past me giving me nothing obviously satisfied that he had done so for the best of reasons.” 

It is impossible to be neighbour to everyone in need.  But if we are ever only neighbour to those we know and love, or to those from whom we could expect reciprocal treatment, we are surely missing the boat.  We are rationalising our security and well being.

I have spent the last month in Papua – the west of the island of New Guinea taken over by Indonesia in 1963 and oppressively administered ever since.  It took the arrival of 43 Papuan asylum seekers on a boat last year to convince me that, in much the same way as John’s disciples did in the scriptures, it was time to “come and see”.  These people have known endless oppression for four decades and they live just 300km from our shores.  Two vignettes for you:

I was meeting with a group of women in Jayapura.  One told me that she was very sad that Australia had taken no notice of her people for more than 40 years and that it took just one boatload of asylum seekers to make Australians curious, if not interested, in the people next door.  The overwhelming majority of the Papuans are Christians – mainly Catholic in the south and Protestant in the north.  They are at the interface between Asia and Melanesia.  The Indonesian military long regarded Papua as their playground – helping to exploit the fabulous natural resources and oppressing the local people who harboured a desire for freedom and independence.

Ever since that boat arrived in Australia, we have heard from our own government how preposterous it would be to consider independence for Papua from Indonesia.  I agree that independence for Papua is now virtually inconceivable and I respect those Papuan church groups who speak not about independence about the need for Papua to be a Land of Peace – tannah damai.  But it was not always preposterous to consider that at some time in the future the people of Papua might be free.  Back in 1950, Sir Percy Spender who was Foreign Minister to Sir Robert Menzies (hardly a trendy lefty of the modern persuasion) wrote to the Dutch Ambassador in Canberra saying: [20]

The Australian government does not regard Dutch New Guinea as forming part of Indonesia.  We believe that the people of West New Guinea have little in common, except a past common administration, with the peoples of Indonesia.  Their developmental problems are separate and the level of political development necessitates placing them in a category quite different from the United States of Indonesia.  In fact, we regard Dutch New Guinea as having much in common from an ethnic, administrative, and developmental point of view with our territories of New Guinea and Papua.

Later that year, Prime Minister Menzies met with the Dutch representative at the UN and told him, “We want to retain you as our neighbours in New Guinea and want nobody but you.  In no case do we wish the Indonesians to take over.” [21]   Spender was replaced by Richard Casey as Foreign Minister who seven years later was still able to argue at the Hague: [22]

It is important that the two administrations should not pursue policies that are in conflict on any basic matter or which would hinder understanding between people in the two halves of the island, if at some future date they should decide, of their own free will, that they want to come together  politically.  Melanesia and Indonesia are distinct entities.

The principle of free choice and the concern for culturally distinct peoples went out the window once our national interest was lined up with the United States’ revised assessment of the desirable shape of the political map in this part of the world.  By 1962, all key players had put to one side the free choice of the Papuans and any concern about cultural conflict between Melanesia and Indonesia.  Our government joined others at the UN in signing off on a deal which saw sovereignty in Papua transferred to Indonesia on 1 May 1963 with provision for a later act of free choice which took place in 1969.  Such an arrangement could only have made sense to intelligent, self-deluded diplomats who were reckless in their consideration of the perspective of the people whose lives they were playing with.  Under the 1962 agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, provision was made for the eligibility of all adult residents, not foreign nationals, “to participate in the act of self-determination, to be carried out in accordance with international practice” whatever that meant.  Early on, the Indonesians insisted that it could not mean one person – one vote, but rather a mode of consultation (musjawarah) whereby 1,026 appointed representatives voted unanimously at eight regional meetings for continued incorporation into Indonesia.  Even the UN Secretary General’s special representative abandoned any reference to “international practice” and reported: [23]

It can be stated that, with the limitations imposed by the geographical characteristics of the territory and the general political situation in the area, an act of free choice has taken place in West Irian in accordance with Indonesian practice in which the representatives of the population have expressed their wish to remain with Indonesia.

Fast forwarding the tape to 2007, I wonder what a good neighbour should now do, given that there is little doubt that most Papuans still think they were duded by the international community and denied an act of free choice.  Returning to Australia from Papua, I find an eerie with my first visit to East Timor.  I first visited East Timor in November 1992 – a year after the Santa Cruz massacre.  I went with the firm intention of returning to Australia and saying nothing publicly.  But on my last night in Dili, Bishop Belo took me to a party where I met Mario Carrascalao who had been governor of East Timor.  The two of them urged me to return to Australia and speak publicly but under no circumstances was I to speak about the need for independence.  They did not think it achievable and they thought such talk simply made the situation more difficult for the young people who were unwilling to accept the inevitability of their situation.  They urged that I speak about three things:

  1. the need to reduce the Indonesian military presence
  2. the need for greater respect for human rights in East Timor and greater supervision of human rights violations by the Indonesian authorities
  3. the need for greater cultural autonomy in the province.

I returned to Australia and faithfully kept to the text.  There were many church and NGO people in Australia who thought I was guilty of appeasement. I had been to East Timor.  I had seen the situation.  Surely I was obliged to speak strongly about the Timorese right of self-determination.  Such a morally pure stance by me might have resulted simply in greater suffering and bloodshed for people in East Timor, threatening the people I had spoken to.  It was not my life at risk.  It was not my blood that would be spilt.

So when I fast forward from Dili in 1992 to Jayapura or Manokwari in 2007, what do I do?  What can any of us say?  No doubt the so called act of self-determination supervised by the UN in 1969 was a sham.  But applying the same principles as I applied in East Timor, I will keep silent unless and until I hear from those whose lives are on the line, those whose blood will be spilt in any fight for self-determination.  If anything, I will be even more cautious, hopefully not because I am growing more conservative but because the parallels with East Timor highlight greater problems.  East Timor was costing Mr Habibe US$100million per annum from the Jakarta coffers.  The Freeport mine in the Papua province is Jakarta’s largest single taxpayer.  Of the 2 million people in the two Papua provinces, there are 800,000 transmigrants from other parts of Indonesia, and they are the majority of the business class.  East Timor was always left on the unresolved list of the UN General Assembly.  The UN signed off on the integration of West Papua as part of Indonesia more than 30 years ago.  The UN is not in the habit of reopening questions about the territorial boundaries of member states.  Papuan independence groups do not have an international network of their own people advocating independence at the highest levels on the diplomatic cocktail circuit. Duncan Campbell urges that Papuan grievances “be routed through UN human rights channels”.  He thinks we should “support every effort to open West Papua to wider international aid” while quietly encouraging “PNG to speak up more for its fellow Papuans”.  We need to heed Sidney Jones’s warning, “The OPM and the radical student movement are not necessarily representative of what's taking place in Papua today, and the concerns of Jayapura, the capital, are not necessarily those of more remote areas.”  More of us Australians need to go and listen, come and see.

Even if the two Papuan provinces were now to be granted independence, is there any guarantee that the profits from the mine would be shared throughout the land?  Would we have another Bougainville?   I note John Bruni’s observation that “the topography of West Papua is highly conducive to Melanesian tribes maintaining their separate identities. Only among the few educated and the more radicalised disenfranchised, did a sense of Melanesian ‘West Papuan’ nationalism emerge.”

If we were discussing Papua amongst educated circles in Jakarta or Yogyakarta, the conversation would soon turn to Australian Aborigines.  It would run something like this.  We understand that you have Aborigines in Australia who still endure appalling social conditions.  Some of them live in remote parts of Northern Australia such as Arnhem Land where they are in the majority and where there are major mining projects.  We understand your concerns about the transparency of the Act of Free Choice in Papua in 1969.  You think the Papuan leaders were bought off or misled by Jakarta and the UN.  When were your Aborigines given any act of free choice at all?  Should they be given one now?  Why should Australia’s territorial sovereignty be any more assured than Indonesia’s?

When Gus Dur was Indonesian President, I was privileged to meet him when he received an Australian group of conference goers at his presidential office late one night.  He told us, “You Australians are not to be trusted on Papua.  It does not matter what your government says to us.  We are not interested in their guarantees.  Being a democracy, your government will have to react to community pressure on Papua, just as it did on Timor.  It does not matter what the major political parties say or agree on.”

I commend to you the initiative of the 87 religious leaders of Papua who published a joint statement on 15 September 2005 committing themselves to an agenda for Papua a land of peace. 

The second vignette.  One night I was chatting with the Papuan Vicar General of the diocese of Maurake.  I told him that this year’s social justice statement would focus on Australia as a global citizen.  I also told him that on my return to Australia I was to address this seminar trying to answer the question in good conscience: “Who is our neighbour?”  He looked at me with a smile and said simply, “We are.”  That said it all.  What do most Papuans know about Australia?  They know we are very tough on illegal fishing, that we have bigger kangaroos than they do, and that we have a beautiful Opera House.  It is high time that we neighbours got to know each other, listen to each other, and help each other, regardless of the views of our respective governments.

Who is our Neighbour?

I commend our government for its stated objective: to resettle some 13,000 persons each year who are in greatest need and to prioritise those who are in need of assistance - those who are at risk if they remain where they are and have no other means of escape other than resettlement to a third country.  Some of those persons in greatest need have come to Australia by boat without a visa and we have treated them appallingly.  There is no reason why the government objective cannot be achieved together with the objective of treating asylum seekers within our territory firmly but decently.  The immorality and inequity in world burden sharing resulting from our present "slam the back door" policy is highlighted by a simple thought experiment.  Imagine that every country signed the Refugee Convention and then adopted the Australian policy.  No refugee would be able to flee from their country of persecution without first joining the mythical queue in their country of persecution to apply for a protection visa.  If anyone dared to flee persecution, they would immediately be held in detention (probably for a year or so) awaiting a determination of their claim.  All refugees in the world would be condemned to remain subject to persecution or to proceed straight to open-ended, judicially unreviewable detention.  The purpose of the Refugee Convention would be completely thwarted.  The myopic argument runs that we Australians are entitled to design a sledge hammer to crack this small nut because other countries have not (yet) adopted our policies and because we are prepared to take 13,000 applicants through the front door provided they stay in the queue back in the country of persecution or first asylum.

If seeking to implement a Christian Response to refugees and asylum seekers on our doorstep, we might contemplate the present Australian version of the parable of Dives and Lazarus: (Lk 16:19-26 with a contemporary Australian gloss)

There was once a rich man, who dressed in purple and the finest linen, and feasted in great magnificence every day. At his gate covered with sores, lay a poor man named Lazarus, who would have been glad to satisfy his hunger with the scraps from the rich man's table. Even the dogs used to come and lick his sores. One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up; and there, far away was Abraham with Lazarus beside him. "Abraham, my father," he called out, "take pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am in agony in this fire. And remember that I overlooked Lazarus at my door only because there were many other people on the other side of the world who were in even greater need. I wanted to dispense charity and justice in an orderly way, not rewarding queue jumpers like Lazarus who is now with you." But Abraham said, "Remember, my child, that all the good things fell to you while you were alive, and all the bad to Lazarus; now he has his consolation here and it is you who are in agony. But that is not all: there is a great chasm fixed between us; no one from our side who wants to reach you can cross it, and none may pass from your side to us."

Given the modesty of the problem confronting Australia, we would do well to ensure compliance with the standards set by other countries receiving far more asylum seekers across porous borders than we ever have.  I propose three simple questions: Given that Australia has the advantage of geographic isolation, I ask my government, why don't we try to be just a little more decent rather than less decent than other countries with the same living standards when it comes to our treatment of those who arrive (whether with or without a visa) invoking our protection obligations? Or if that is judged too naďve, how about we aim to be just as decent as those who receive ten times more asylum seekers than we do?  Or if that is too much to ask (given the fear driven mandate of the government on this issue), how about we limit our indecency to our treatment of adults, ensuring that never again are kids put in detention? It is in the interests of the refugees of the world that we address the problems of secondary movement and 9-11 heeding the warning of Mr Lubbers that we "build an effective system of international burden sharing, where governments are discouraged from taking unilateral and punitive action, and where refugees are able to rely on adequate protection and assistance within their regions of origin. For to take punitive action is to shoot oneself in the foot. It is not effective, and it only worsens the climate between North and South."


Tonight I salute the Good Sams who have done so much by their example to help us extend the circle of those to whom we might be neighbour in our world.  We Australians need to overcome our isolation and our fear as we reach out to embrace our neighbours who can only dream of the security, wealth, and opportunity we enjoy.  In good conscience, we have to use these gifts for the good of all, so that we might truly be worthy of sitting down to the banquet of life.  How often can we expect in the future that the person in close proximity to us, though not family, colleague, friend or reciprocal trader in the market place, will look at us benignly, giving thanks to their God, that their neighbour had helped them in time of need?  That dignified, graced look of thanks comes not from following the prescriptions of authority but from joyfully reaching out to the other in good conscience.  Let’s take heart and follow that wonderful exhortation from Chapter 72 of Benedict’s rule:

“(Be zealous), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body and behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.  No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.”  With discernment and moderation, let us act in good conscience reaching out to the other who is our neighbour.

[1] W E Gladstone, The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance, John Murray, London, 1874,  p. 12

[2] J H Newman, “A Letter Addressed to His Grace The Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr Gladstone's Recent Expostulation”, 1875, in Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, Volume 2, Christian Classics, Westminster, 1969,  p.  246

[3] ibid. p. 257

[4] ibid. p. 261

[5] Theologians such as Germain Grisez and John Ford who advised Pope Paul VI in his preparation of Humanae Vitae were of the view that this teaching was infallible, declaring authoritatively the earlier irreformable papal teaching on the issue in 1930.  This is no longer a widely held view, especially given the definitive wording that Pope John Paul II used in Evangelium Vitae declaring abortion, euthanasia and the direct, voluntary killing of an innocent human being  to be  grave moral disorders. No such wording was used by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.   In relation to abortion, John Paul II said:

By the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. 

At the time Cardinal Ratzinger cautioned that even these declarations were not infallible.  Despite the preconditions set on the appointment of bishops in recent years, there is no way that the bishops throughout the world would show unanimous agreement concerning Paul VI’s teaching on contraception.  Many would prefer a teaching consistent with the recommendations of the majority of the Commission established by Paul VI.

[6] Cardinal Pell, Acton Lecture, 1999

[7] G. Pell, “ From Vatican II to today - Address to Catalyst for Renewal's Bishops Forum”, 30 May 2003

[8] Cardinal Pell, Address to the National Press Club, 21 September 2005

[9] Pius XII, “De Conscientia Christiana in Iuvenibus Recte Efformanda”, Radio Address for “Family Day”, 23 March 1952, Acta Apostolica Sedis, Vol. 44, 12-28 April 1952, p. 270 at p. 271; translated in The Pope Speaks: The Teachings of Pope Pius XII, Pantheon, New York, 1957, p. 93

[10] J H Newman, “A Letter Addressed to His Grace The Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr Gladstone's Recent Expostulation”, 1875, in Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, Volume 2, Christian Classics, Westminster, 1969, p 255

[11] Dignitatis Humanae, para. 14

[12] J Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth” (1991) in Crisis of Conscience, J M Haas (ed.), Crossroad Herder, New York, 1995, p. 9

[13] Quoted in J Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology, Clarendon, Oxford, 1987, p. 187

[14] Quoted in Mahoney, op. cit. p. 192

[15] Dignitatis Humanae, para. 3

[16] Cardinal Pell, “Cardinal Newman on Conscience”, Thomas More Forum, Canberra, 20 September 2005

[17] John Courtney Murray, “Religious Freedom” in The Documents of Vatican II, Walter Abbott (ed.), Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1966, p.674

[18]   “The Inconvenient Conscience”, First Things, May 2005, p. 22 at p. 24.

[19] Bishop Anthony Fisher, "Struggling to Recover a Catholic Sense", Address to Pontifical Academy for Life, 23 February 2007. reported in Zenit News, 3 March 2007, Code: ZE07030301

[20] Letter dated 8 February 1950, quoted by C L M Penders, The West New Guinea Debacle, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2002, p. 301.

[21] Quoted at p. 307

[22] Quoted at p. 316

[23] Para. 253, Report by the representative of the Secretary General in West Irian, November 1969