The greatest scourge on the soul of this nation is racism

The Most Rev. Christopher Saunders is only the second Bishop of Broome and is in charge on one of Australia’s unique dioceses – 773,000 square kilometres with a total population of approximately 33,500 people.

In his keynote address to the 2015 Australasian Catholic Press Association, recently held in Broome WA,  Bishop Saunders exposes some nerves on the topic of racism, and shares some insight into his diocese's past.

As some of you will know, I have been, for the last fourteen years, part of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. I have been chair for twelve of those years. I am told I was the longest serving bishop in that portfolio – one that I found forever challenging and at times very frustrating. 

That I found it challenging is easy to understand. These have been fertile years for the playing-out of gross injustices in our land, and that is to mention nothing of those travesties of justice that pour out continually from a multitude of situations overseas. My frustration in the position is that I tried very hard at all times to represent the voice of the Church on issues that matter. I tried to communicate that which I knew to be the mind of the bishops on a host of issues. I was assisted by a very competent secretariat – creative, dedicated, well-schooled in Catholic Social teaching, and extremely hard working. They are undoubtedly one of the finest group of people I have ever worked with. But for all that my frustration grew over the years as whenever we spoke out, those things about which we spoke were time and time again ignored by the secular press and media.

To add to the burden I would get letters from lay people saying things like: “Why doesn’t the Church say something about asylum seekers, or worker’s rights, or Aboriginal people, or the plight of the aged?” This is a good time to say how grateful I was to the majority of Catholic publications and Church media agencies who willingly furthered our press releases and pronouncements – and gave them oxygen. The few such bodies that seem to have followed a policy of avoiding social justice as though it was an added extra that you can do without, I must say, simply don’t understand Catholic teaching and are appallingly ignorant of the tenets of faith. Catholic teaching presented without social justice is simply not Catholic teaching.

For the Church or any of its component parts to attempt to live the Christian life devoid of social justice is tantamount to spitting in the face of Christ. Happily, I must say, the great gift of Francis, our Holy Father, is to awaken us from our slumber, to help us see in the plaintive look of the hungry child, the traumatised refugee, the desperately dispossessed and the marginalized poor nothing less than the face of the suffering Christ who begs of us compassion and Christian action for justice. What an inspiration this old man is to the tired Church of the First World. What a galvanising effect he has been to a self-serving developed world. His words have found new voice in the resolution of some State leaders in western Europe who are preparing their nations to absorb the waves of refugees from Syria in the greatest effort at resettlement of displaced persons since the end of World War II. And what about Australia?

I have wondered often lately, if I had my time again, about how much more could be done to combat what I consider to be the greatest scourge on the soul of this nation, namely racism.

Some weeks ago, after a trip out bush away from media frenzies, I became vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding Adam Goodes – I was picking up bits and pieces on my return but not really tuned into the intensity of the debate. Before it reached its crescendo and before political leaders and club presidents came on board with a plan for combined action, I was asked by one of our Sisters had I been following it all. I said I hadn’t and I was trying rather belatedly to figure it out, to catch up with its significance. She commented that in a way, for her, it summed up all the sadness and disappointment of this country – that someone could be vilified because of their race, publically and without due shame – and that it should start with a vulgar and reckless remark from a young girl who was no doubt schooled in such vilification by her elders. ‘Didn’t it just show how hard it is to be Aboriginal, and proud, in such a toxic and tormented environment?’ the Sister mused. It set me thinking about our past as a diocese. How and why we came to be. And how it is at the kernel of our calling to love God and neighbour, fully, in truth and in justice. That evening I experienced the most fruitful of meditations. And my daily examination of conscience had more energy about it than usual. Wasn’t this part of all of our missionary endeavours I prayed – to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…? It is on those lines I have been trekking these past few weeks. And asking myself where am I in this debate that surrounds Adam Goodes, and where is my diocese and where is my country?

Historically racism as it has existed in this country and as it continues to manifest itself still today has dealt the moral worth of this Commonwealth of ours some savage and reprehensible blows. From our very beginnings as a colonised entity our treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal and Islander peoples has been atrocious and unspeakable. I would contend that our race relations have been so fundamentally tainted by the evil of racism that it has scarred the psyche of this country’s peoples and continues to hinder, even today, our pathway to maturation as a nation.

I believe that, at times and in places, the Church has a remarkable record in correcting the abuses spurred on by racism and greed, so evident in our written history. Bishop Polding, for instance, the new colony’s first Catholic episcopal appointment, was quoted as saying; “The life of an Aboriginal person is valued no more than the life of a kangaroo, and far less than that of a bullock…” He goes on to cite the conversations of young settlers in the colony who spoke openly of the extermination of natives. It was even fashionable in his day for some leading lights to debate whether or not Aboriginal people had souls or whether they were fully human.

The scramble for the possession of land was a primary focus for Australia’s first settlers be they free travellers from the Mother Country or ex-convicts. It was a necessary part of the process of occupation by settlers to believe that there was no prior ownership of land and that the Crown had the right to grant and to sell land irrespective of the presence and existence of Indigenous peoples who hunted and gathered on every property. This approach was devoid of any sense of moral obligation to the native peoples, something well illustrated by a local grazier here in the Kimberley, Hamlet Cornish, who in 1883 wrote; “Imagine, thousands of acres of grassland, and all a chap has to do is to march in and squat on it.”

The Church here in the Kimberley was founded largely by an Irishman who recognised the plight of the Aboriginal people and the horrible injustices meted out to them. He set about establishing a protectorate, a mission, as some visible response to the injustices he had observed in the colony of Western Australia and elsewhere. Matthew Gibney was an Irish priest who came to Perth in 1863 and became Bishop of Perth in 1887. [Incidentally, it is interesting to recall here, now, that he was visiting Victoria in 1880 and was the priest often mentioned at Glenrowan at the scene of the Kelly gang siege where he so bravely entered the burning hotel.] Of Bishop Gibney, Paul Hasluck has to say: “To Bishop Gibney perhaps more than to any other single man, belongs the credit for reawakening in Western Australian life a conception of Christian duty towards the natives.” He was brazen in his resistance to Governments and in his resolve in opposition to the exploitation of Aboriginal people by Graziers and Pearlers.


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Bishop Christopher Saunders Image
Bishop Christopher Saunders

The Most Rev. Christopher Saunders is only the second Bishop of Broome and is in charge on one of Australia’s unique dioceses – 773,000 square kilometres with a total population of approximately 33,500 people.

Bishop Saunders states “I see the Church as having an important role in and contribution to make to the process of reconciliation between individuals and communities.”

The motto he chose for his ministry “Caritas Christi Urget Nos” – Let’s all be motivated by the love of Christ, indicates the means by which this reconciliation can become a reality.

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