Amidst the escalating debate surrounding the Voice to Parliament referendum in Australia, it is imperative to engage in thoughtful and well-informed discussions when deciding which way to vote. Recognising the need for such discourse, Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV) and Catholic Social Service Australia (CSSA) recently hosted a webinar (the second of three) with Fr Frank Brennan SJ, a prominent lawyer, human rights activist, and long-time advocate for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Fr Frank offered insights into the application of Catholic Social Teaching, particularly to the ‘questions that lie before us in 2023 in regards to the Voice referendum and reconciliation more broadly’.
In welcoming the 181 webinar participants, Josh Lourensz, executive director of CSSV, stressed the importance of understanding Catholic Social Teaching and engaging in meaningful conversations, regardless of one’s voting stance. He emphasised the need to gain a better understanding of the issues and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching to enrich the discussions surrounding the upcoming referendum.
In his presentation, Fr Frank drew upon the wisdom of [former] Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis to establish a framework for applying Catholic Social Teaching to the broader context of the forthcoming referendum. He commenced by reflecting on Pope John Paul II’s visit to Alice Springs in 1986, when the [then] Pope met with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics and conveyed a powerful message:
The Church in Australia will not be fully the church that Jesus wants her to be until you, the Aboriginal people, have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.Pope John Paul II
Fr Frank underscored the significance of this statement, highlighting the importance of Aboriginal voices in shaping the Church and society as a whole.
He went on to recount an important moment in Australian history, when in 1982, during a time when the [then] Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was ‘misbehaving quite badly’, young Aboriginal leaders from remote areas expressed their dissatisfaction with the offered land rights and self-determination regimes during a meeting with government officials. At that time, the government had refused to allow them to meet again and Fr Frank recalled how Church leaders ‘stepped up’, providing the necessary money and resources for these young Aboriginal leaders to meet again on Palm Island (one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia).
It was also when Thomas Geia (who recently passed away) and his colleague Rachel Cummins went live on national television to articulate the aspirations of their people. ‘I think it would’ve been the first time in Australian history that elected leaders from remote Aboriginal communities in far away places like Cape York appeared on national television to talk about the aspirations of their people,’ said Fr Frank, ‘And if a Voice means anything, it’s about that.’
‘And for us as Church, it’s about being able to be privileged to walk alongside, to give support, to give encouragement, and to be listening ears.’Fr Frank Brennan SJ
Acknowledging the challenges
Discussing the challenges posed by the referendum, Fr Frank acknowledged that it extends beyond political divisions to fundamental questions about justice and the role of a constitution. He observed, ‘It’s opening up a very big philosophical cleavage about what is justice and what do you expect a constitution to do?’ The referendum presents a ‘fundamental question’ for the entire country, as all voters must weigh the extent to which everyone should be treated equally, and ‘when special entitlements are not just allowed, but required within your legal structures and in your constitutional framework’.
As we consider these questions, Fr Frank urged everyone to ‘remain respectful of each other as we try to get the country to yes’. He recognised that among the voters, there are those who have already made up their minds, whether they will vote yes or no. However, he emphasised the importance of engaging with those who remain undecided. ‘In the middle are those who are undecided, and that’s why I think we need the resources of Catholic Social Teaching to be able to engage with those who are undecided,’ he said.
‘Some of those who are undecided want more information and a better understanding of how the Voice might work, but they also want to be convinced that there is good moral reasons, even good theological reasons for having a distinctive entity placed in a constitution, which is there for only a particular group in society—that is, those who are the proud inheritors of a culture and tradition spanning 65,000 years.’Fr Frank Brennan SJ
Referring again to Pope John Paul II’s statement in Alice Springs (1986), where the pope said, ‘Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear’, Fr Frank asked the question: What is needed in terms of the legal machinery of the country to ensure that the lasting genius and dignity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples does not disappear?
In answer to that, he said we can go ‘as far back to 1970’ when Pope Paul VI said, ‘We know you have a lifestyle proper to your own ethnic genius or culture, a culture which the Church respects and which she does not in any way ask you to renounce. Society itself is enriched by the presence of different cultural and ethnic elements.’
Fr Frank again cited Pope John Paul II, saying, ‘The establishment of a new society for Aboriginal people cannot go forward without just and mutually recognised agreements,’ and connected this to the current Uluru Statement from the Heart, which is also about trying to come, all these years later, ‘to just and mutually recognised agreements’.
‘You, the Aboriginal people of this country and its cities, must show that you are actively working for your own dignity of life. On your part, you must show that you too can walk tall and command the respect which every human being expects to receive from the rest of the human family.’Pope John Paul II, Alice Springs, 1986
Pope Francis provides further guidance
Moving to the teachings of Pope Francis, Fr Frank referred to his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, where the Pope highlighted the importance of working from local traditions and cultures to express the truth of Christ. He challenged the notion that a single culture can fully comprehend the mystery of redemption, stating Pope Francis’ words, ‘It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.’ 
Fr Frank emphasised Pope Francis’s call for special care for indigenous communities, acknowledging their unique connection to the land. He quoted from the 2015 encyclical letter, Laudato Si , where Pope Francis wrote,
It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity, but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.Pope Francis
Fr Frank emphasised the sacred value of land for indigenous peoples and the need for genuine interaction to preserve their identity and values.
Fr Frank further explored Pope Francis’s teachings in his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. in that, the Pope stresses the importance of a healthy openness that does not threaten one’s own identity. Fr Frank quoted the Pope’s words, ‘The world grows and is filled with new beauty thanks to the success of syntheses produced between cultures that are open and free of any form of cultural imposition.’ He emphasised that recognising the voice and rights of indigenous peoples does not advocate for separatism but rather respects their entitlements and enriches the nation. ‘The Australian constitution may be all for the better if there was due acknowledgement and respect for the First Australians,’ he said.
In response to Fr Frank, Helen Christensen (Aboriginal Education Officer, Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools) – a proud Tiwi Islander and Central Desert woman, originally from Darwin, and who now lives and works on Wadawurrung land in Victoria – emphasised the significance of education. She stressed the importance of the nation and the broader community comprehending and educating themselves about the deep connection First Nations people have with the land and why it holds immense importance.
Helen acknowledged the long and difficult struggles they have faced to reach this point and expressed her belief that the Voice, in the future, is crucial for forthcoming generations, including her grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. She hopes that by ensuring a better future, they won’t have to endure the same challenges faced by the current generation to ‘make things right’.
In concluding, Josh re-emphasised that as the referendum approaches, engaging in conversations guided by Catholic Social Teaching is crucial:
‘The wisdom and insights from our popes remind us of the importance of justice, respect for cultural diversity, and the protection of the dignity and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Hopefully we can all be equipped with these resources as we discuss and reflect upon the upcoming referendum with our families, colleagues, and communities.’
The final webinar in the Catholic Social Services Series, Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Moments for healing this country will be held on 27 July 2023, 4.00-5.00pm (AEST) and will include a panel of First Nations Peoples discussing their views, experiences and hopes in light of the upcoming referendum. Further information is available here – bookings are essential.
CSSV’s Reconciliation in Australia webpage has a number of resources and links available
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) One Journey, Together website – https://indigenousvoice.church/
An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge – Revised Edition, Fr Frank Brennan, Garratt Publishing 2023
Statements from the Soul: The Moral Case for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Edited by Shireen Morris & Damien Freeman, Black Inc 2023