From the Parish House

The Religious Discrimination Bill 2022 and the package of legislation on religious discrimination is causing heartache for the government, for many religious people and for a great portion of the Australian population.  It is interesting to reflect on what is happening here.  The religious profile of Australia has changed over time and it will continue to do so for some time yet.  For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans in Australia a wealth of Indigenous spiritualties flourished throughout this land.  We are only now, in recent years, learning to understand and appreciate them.

The last two hundred years in Australia has seen Indigenous spirituality marginalised as Christianity became the dominant religious culture in Australia.  Christianity has had an incredible impact on the development and shape of Western culture for hundreds of years.  There was a time when the West was identified as Christendom, the culture and kingdom of Christ.  Christianity has shaped so many of the public institutions of the West and has framed the fabric of daily life in many countries throughout the West.  This can be seen in the art, architecture, cultural feasts, literature and customs of so many places.

The all pervasive influence of Christianity has been declining for some time.  The decline can probably be traced back to the period of the enlightenment and the beginning of the development of a culture that has more confidence in a scientific mind-set and greater trust in human reason than in religious authority and tradition.  It’s not all a bad thing!

So, today in Australia, as in many western countries, we have a culture that is not characterised by a single religious world view and interpretation of life.  In other words, people ‘put life together’ and account for their experience and understanding of life in diverse ways.  One indicator of that is the Australian census data which in 2016 revealed that a Christian identification accounts for just over 50 percent of the population.  This is down from over 85 percent compared to fifty years ago.  The greatest growth was in those who had no identification with any particular religion.  This number increased to 30 percent of the population.  This group is often characterised as those with no belief or secular beliefs.  However, a closer look at the definition of ‘no religion’ on the census, in fact, tells a different story.  No religion is equivalent to “Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation”.  This is a broad definition and does not simply equate to atheism or no belief in God.  It includes atheism but is much broader than that.  You can be spiritual and believe in God, with no religious affiliation.

This growing diversity is often misunderstood.  Too many people still think in terms of the world being divided into religious (Christian) or secular.  And the two are set up in opposition.  If you are religious, you are against the secular and if you are secular you are against religion.  That adversarial way of looking at things only seems to grow animosity, and division.  It can lead to the ‘culture war’ mentality, believing that each side is trying to win the war on how our culture should be and what should shape it.  It can end up being about who is right and who is wrong.  And then we set up walls and try to protect ourselves.

It seems to me that the Religious Discrimination debate is often carried out on these lines.  This is probably why it has even reached the unfortunate situation where gay and transgender students in faith based schools are becoming ‘objects’ of debate.  This is indeed regrettable.  As Catholic parishes and schools, we have a role to play to present a different approach to the diversity around us; to avoid falling into a ‘them and us mentality’ and to turning human beings into objects of debate.  That should not be our way.

Catholic parishes and schools are places based on the belief that each and every person is made in the image and likeness of God.  Not just Catholics, not just believers, not just religious people but everyone.  All are made in the image and likeness of God and have an inalienable dignity.  No student is an object.  They are each a fragile, vulnerable person made in God’s image.  That understanding is why so many of us are horrified to hear talk of expelling students and people in the work place based on their sexuality.

Catholic schools and parishes need to take into account the plurality that exists with their communities; among their parishioners; school staff, students and parents.  They are the ones who are currently present, who are given to us to educate and care for in a responsible way.  And they are diverse: there is diversity among those who consider themselves Catholic; there is diversity among those who belong to a variety of non-Christian religions, and Indigenous spiritualities, and there is also considerable diversity among those who have all kinds of secular outlooks and lifestyles.  Catholic parishes and schools need to be hospitable places in all the diversity, which makes them up.  It is unfair to indiscriminately label them all and treat them as if they were all the same.  Catholic parishes and schools ought to engage with diversity, and see how this strengthens our communities and identity instead of seeing it as a threat.

The Religious Discrimination debate could benefit from more dialogue and more acceptance of the diversity that exists within our culture.  It could benefit from lessons in dialogue and understanding diversity; and realise that human beings can learn from each other’s views and beliefs.  Our Catholic parishes and schools can have a leadership role in this approach.  They could lead the wider culture into a different way of viewing diversity.  Diversity is not a threat.  It is also not simply that which is to be tolerated.  It is the basis for rich discussion, dialogue and challenge.  Human beings can and should learn from one another and the depths of the traditions from which they have come.  That requires good will, courage, the ability to challenge and be challenged, to change and to call for change.  Those who believe we are all made in the image and likeness of God could lead the way.

By Fr Brendan Reed

 

Parish Priest

Comments

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Sandra Spurio

Well said Brendan. Many of us genuinely share your values of compassion, courage and inclusiveness.

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T. J. Martin

Best we don’t just simply agree with Fr Brendan, so just to take up a couple of points.

I doubt that we will ever really know whether a “wealth of indigenous spiritualities flourished throughout this land for thousands of years”. Nor can a compelling case be made that Christianity has marginalised that indigenous spirituality over the last 200 years, but these combined thoughts surely fit with the popular concept of indigenous victimhood.

Then there is the rapid decline in recent decades of the “pervasive influence of Christianity”, which Fr Brendan thinks is “not all a bad thing”. There is no doubt about the decline, that now features the diversity that appeals so much to Fr Brendan. His view is that you can be part of this diversity, have no religious affiliation but be spiritual and believe in God. It is not clear how confident he or we can be of that. Nor are alternative explanations offered for the decline in the pervasive influence of Christianity. Among many other things, these include the increasing affluence of society with the adoption of freedoms of behaviour that did not exist previously, and very importantly, the gross damage in particular to the Catholic Church because of clerical sexual abuse.

All of these have contributed, for example, to the ease with which Australian legislatures have approved obnoxious euthanasia legislation, which is proving more difficult to achieve even in the United Kingdom.

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Sandy Curnow

Hi Brendan,
Congratulations on that really excellent contribution to the national debate, as well as to us in our parishes.
The values you raise are foundational, but have been quite lost in parliament this week.
Thank you for reminding us.

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Mary Barbuto

Thank you Brendan for such a clear and balanced comment.

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Angela Dupuche

So very well put Brendan, thank you

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Anne Byrne

Dear Brendan I really appreciate this excellent article to help us to be more aware of this vexing subject of diversity. It has given me much food for thought. Thank you

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Jenny

Thanks for those insightful thoughts. It was a compelling read, informative and thought provoking.

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Lyn Kane

Thank you Brendan for affirming all people as children of God who are to be respected rather than subjects of debate.

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Julianna

Thank you Brendan for your well reasoned and thoughtful reflection and efforts to deescalate the hype of this past week.

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Yolanda Torrisi

Absolutely words that have great depth and meaning to drive all of us to embrace the human first - not make them the subject of debate. A platinum star this week Fr Brendan for this great thought piece.

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Betty RUdin

A timely and compelling read Brendan Thank you

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