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Towards Public not Pubic Religious Ethics

Sunday, 5 March 2017  | Gordon Preece

An academic friend of mine had an unfortunate typo sneak into his article. A lost ‘l’ meant ‘public’ ethics became ‘pubic’ ethics. Sadly that slippage sums up the state of much Australian public and social policy debate today, especially when involving sex and religion.

A common critique of much religious involvement in social policy debates is that they seem so obsessed about sex. My own Melbourne Anglican Diocese once produced a statement entitled Sexuality: A Position Paper. I looked to see if there were pictures, only to be disappointed.

More seriously, the impression may be misleading as the initiative in raising sexual issues often comes from various non-church lobby groups or the media looking for something sensational. In the latter case, it’s not necessarily from antagonism but from ignorance of the wide range of religious non-sexual, above-the-navel teaching and its public significance. This also applies to religious members and groups themselves being ignorant of their own traditions. A broader familiarity by both sides with faith teachings on many public and social issues might result in more light than heat than is commonly shown, including a less vociferous and trollish tone online.

A case in point involves the relative ignorance, again on both sides, of the riches of Catholic social teaching compared with the avalanche of publicity of its also substantial sexual and bioethical teachings. Many people, including political parties like Labor, have amnesia about their Christian roots and the Christian roots of significant Australian social legislation. For instance, how many realise that Catholic social teaching in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (referring to ‘the new things’ of the Industrial Revolution’) about a fair wage sufficient to support a family, rights of workplace association for unions etc. was critical to Justice Higgins’ decision in the landmark 1907 Sunshine Harvester case? This became the basis for the century-long Australian settlement in industrial relations.

Sadly, the overturning of this settlement occurred while shepherds were asleep to the stabilising significance of this tradition. It has left individual sheep at the mercy of often ravenous wolves in an increasingly unequal and unfriendly industrial landscape. Beneficiaries call the sheep to jump higher, bear more wool, eat less grass. This is the new normality of unpaid overtime, emerging workers paying for internships and pressure to reduce penalty rates for unsociable hours. If the barrister represents the classical professional with security and continuity of employment, the barista represents the new economy of 24/7 casual work. This is not just for students in their teens and early 20s, but also for those in their 30s and 40s. Such irregular, insecure jobs typical of the precariat make it an increasingly difficult, even heroic, feat of juggling and organisation to get a mortgage, maintain a marriage or partnership, have children, look after elderly loved ones and maintain neighbourly relations in a community. The social value of care has been heavily discounted in today’s economy.

In a more pluralistic society and economy than the Victorian era one of 1907, religions, especially Christian ones, can no longer presume a monopoly of moral authority. The democratising of knowledge makes all things, especially traditional religious moral teachings, subject to constant questioning. Religions have been slow to cope with these changes and questions.

Most damaging recently to the public role of religious teaching has been the moral apostasy of sexual abuse. It heightens the seeming and sometimes substantial hypocrisy of traditional religious concerns regarding shifting sexual morality and identity. The only valid response to the abuse must be the relative silence of shame and actions of prevention, repentance and restitution. The right to speak in public will be hard-won by the restoration of transparent and accountable practices so that, once again, religions may speak a humble, wise and relevant work from the position of authentic pastoral practice, modelling such care in the manifold ministries of mercy and advocacy for and with the marginalised.

This humble practice of service is modelled in religious social and welfare agencies (making up 23 of the top 25 in Australia), and parishes, synagogues and mosques at the local level. A ground-breaking US study, ‘Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society’, recently found that 344,000 religious congregations contributed $US1.2 trillion to the US economy in gifts and voluntary labour, equal to the world’s 15th largest economy.

Hugh Mackay’s focus groups ‘say they don't like the institution, but like the fact that in their suburb there is a church’. A neighbour recently commented that, despite not liking the large institutional, authoritarian aspect of our denomination, they loved seeing the diversity and unity of Burmese Baptists gathering in our local Anglican Church. Revolutionary practices like this speak louder than the resolutionary words of synods.

It is right, as Jesus said, that the left hand shouldn’t know what the right is doing, to prevent public show, spin or PR. But a more fitting harmony between pastoral best practice, prophetic preaching and painstaking research may once again enable religions to speak in authentic and timely ways to the social erosion of our society and polity. In a world increasingly privatising the reach of religion, such healing words and deeds, binding up the broken-hearted, must be genuinely social, not just sexual, and public, not pubic.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and Interim Director of the University of Divinity Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy.

This article was first published by the University of Divinity Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy on 8th December 2016 at https://www.centrerasp.org/blog/2016/12/7/towards-public-not-pubic-religious-ethics. Reproduced with permission.


Will Jones
March 8, 2017, 3:16AM
Good article.

I don't agree though that the decline of the moral authority of religion is inevitable with increasing knowledge. It was a deliberate aim of the enemies of religion and not everywhere has seen it, only those where the enemies of religion have gained the upper hand.

I also think the abuse scandals are often an excuse - secular institutions such as hospitals and council run homes and the BBC also had serious instances of abuse but no one argues they have therefore forfeited their place in society.

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