The Referendum outcome and the way of forgiveness

Australia has just been through what has proved to be a difficult and divisive time as it considered voting on a proposal to change the constitution to establish an indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’.  

While there is widespread awareness of the disadvantage experienced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, there were a range of views about the merits of the specific proposal put forward by the Albanese Government.

Ultimately the Australian people were not convinced by the Government’s proposal and the referendum was defeated.

As the Referendum was on a matter of constitutional governance which involved no direct violation of a moral absolute or conflict with a matter of faith, the Catholic bishops of Australia, while sympathetic to the need to more effectively assist the reconciliation process and advance better policies to assist indigenous people to achieve their full human flourishing, resisted giving a direction on how the Catholic people should vote.

Catholics could legitimately adopt different positions as to how to vote in the referendum.

The Church has an important public role in articulating the moral principles which should guide our public policy debates.

Recognising the impact British settlement has had on the indigenous peoples, it has always sought to advocate for social and political measures which it believed would best promote their full human flourishing.

In 1845 the first Catholic Bishop of Australia, Bishop Polding, when addressing a parliamentary committee, recognised the need to try and understand the experience of the aboriginal people.

He stated, “I am making myself a black, putting myself in that position, and taking away all that I know except that this is my country, that my father lived by pursuing the emu, and the kangaroo, that I am driven away from my hunting grounds…”

It has always been the Church’s intention to do what it believed to be in the best interests of the indigenous peoples, however, it is clear in hindsight that a number of its initiatives had the opposite effect.

Importantly, the Church here in Australia does recognise that mistakes have been made which have caused significant harm and suffering and has asked for forgiveness for historic wrongs.

Following the outcome of the Referendum we, as a nation, need to find a way forward.

Warren Mundine, both a man of Catholic faith and member of the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yuin peoples of Australia, recently made a very insightful observation which is helpful in speaking of how we might move forward. He noted that “reconciliation has two parts – sorry and forgiveness”.

And while there has been a genuine effort on the part of government and other institutions in the society such as the Christian churches to offer apologies for past actions, he notes that we “never talk about the forgiveness part”.

As Mundine points out “for real reconciliation, it’s not enough that Australia as a nation says sorry, but Indigenous people also need to forgive Australia as a nation”.

Mundine is making a very important point of human psychology which we also find as a central teaching in the Christian faith.

When harm has been done to us, there is nothing that can undo it, there is no way to make things as they were or even really adequately compensate in material terms.

The only way we as individuals can genuinely be healed and move forward is through the path of forgiveness. When we hold on to past hurt, we are not able to fully heal, as Mundine says we remain “captives to the past”.

Here we can also turn to the Gospels for guidance. One of the key messages of Jesus was the centrality of forgiveness. In response to Peter asking how many times must I forgive, Jesus gave the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35).

Forgiveness is the way that opens up the healing of the heart and a desire to move forward. Unforgiveness binds us to the past.

Humanity, though created good, is flawed due to sin and in the history of any nation there will be injustices and failures, but there will also be good will and genuine efforts to do what is right.

This is the case in our Australian history since the arrival of the British. The path of genuine reconciliation will only be advanced when a just process has been followed, when there is both sorrow and forgiveness for past harm.

This is by no means an easy path, many of our indigenous brothers and sisters remain deeply traumatised by what has happened historically, but it is clear that this is the goal we must work together on achieving.

This requires both human effort and prayer, and ultimately divine grace.

Let us continue to commit ourselves to the path of reconciliation.

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