Common wealth for the common good

The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Statement on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia has been nearly five years in the making. When it was begun, Rupert Murdoch was embracing Catholicism. Alan Bond was walking tall within its fold. The really poor Australian Catholics felt uncomfortable in the church. Pat Dodson, the one and only Aboriginal Catholic priest, had not long withdrawn from the priesthood, finding church authorities too abrasive on Aboriginal culture.

It is not insignificant that this statement is now being published by Collins-Dove, a company recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch.

The “Universal Church” was and still is seething with an underlying theological tension. The majority poor church (Latin America, Asia and Africa) has adopted “Liberation Theology” as its theological matrix; it rejects most traditional European theology as bearing the indelible stamp of theological colonialism, bent genetically to favour the rich. The document draws unmistakably from the received language of European theology, but it does incorporate one single contribution from the poor church — the concept of preferential option for the poor. But this is handled clumsily and unknowingly by the bishops.

In trying to come to terms with this phrase, the bishops never get past the conception of a church for the poor to a church of the poor. They do not betray any inkling that it must involve prioritising the spiritual initiative which lies in the hands of the poor, from whom the rich are called to receive. They still fall back on the false image of a one-way street whereby material and spiritual resources are dispatched in the direction of the poor. One might have hoped that such an image of throwing goods at the poor would have been finally dismissed by the Apostle Paul as in itself profitless as early as the year 54.

At the Canberra Press Club launching of this book, Cardinal Clancy, in “toasting” the affluent for their astuteness and donations, turned the meaning of a noble concept on its head by pedanticising and thereby trivialising it. Michael Costigan seemed caught off-guard when called on to second the “toast” to the rich. He offered the fatuous example of a shadowy figure anonymously dispatching a large cache of notes across an ever-widening gulf — in a brown paper bag! (Shades of the Bjelke-Petersen enquiry.)

We are a long way here from the thought that the poor should have a voice in the way church finances are spent, and that we should make personal friends of the poor, using the mammon of iniquity so that they (the poor) will make us welcome in an everlasting dwelling-place.

The poor are demanding the Gospel-right of a direct voice in the essential life of the church, not just to be spoken for. They do not trust a select company of exclusively male, exclusively unpoor, uncoloured and unoppressed, even to understand what they want said.

The poor intuitively know that this document is not written by soul-friends, bearing, as it does, such a remarkable resemblance to the familiar tired rhetoric of politicians. For them, this document carries all the disillusioned promise of a bounced cheque.

Harvard Professor John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice has been one of the most challenging books in legal and philosophical circles for 20 years. It has a crispness and freshness lacking in the bishops’ statement which disparages Rawls’ work in favour of a set of church concepts so faded that they cannot provide elbow-room for the poor to act with their own initiative.

Within the bishops’ statement there is still the comforting assurance for the wealthy that they are entitled to use their wealth according to their calling (or station in life). Cardinal Clancy made ample use of this theological period-piece, a relic especially designed for the old Catholic aristocracies.

Aboriginal people feel particularly let down because the bishops made no reference to the crux of Aboriginal pauperisation — the question of land. No wonder that the poorest of the poor consistently find that such attempts to represent them end up severely unnuanced and suffering from an unbelievably radical omission.

Mister Man
Have you looked at your face
Like mine that is mirrored in the land?
Yours reflects only in pools.
My image goes deep in the sand.

“Mister Man”, Kevin Gilbert, The Blackside (Hyland House, 1990).

The first Catholic Archbishop of Sydney was an English Benedictine monk, John Bede Polding. In the Select Committee on Aborigines (10/9/1845) to the question: “Do you think Aborigines have such an idea of the value of land, as to lead them to view its settlement as an act of aggression?” He answered: “I am convinced of it, and I think that it is the root of the evil.”

In the draft document, the bishops promised that they would not resile from an honest self-scrutiny as to the just use of church wealth. The final document reveals that they in fact have done just that.

Their statement falls short of the solemn Christian duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It would seem that, though some bishops are courageous enough in their own individual voice, the dangerous memory of Jesus has become too much to carry their corporate spirit along.

Their noisy dying world
Deafens them like the last lapse of blood.
Corpses which, in other days,
Would have greened their crops
Block the cities drains.
Their public speeches dwell on private morals,
Neither hating or approving great evils.
Surprised in attitudes of prayer
They struggle to remember which they chose,
A scorched-earth policy or
The laying on of hands.

“Christian Gentlemen”, Vincent Buckley, Selected Poems (Angus and Robertson, 1987).

From: Archives, Green Left Weekly issue #81, 25 November 1992.

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