Towards Public not Pubic Religious Ethics

Article written by Revd Dr Gordon Preece

An academic friend 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 policy debate today, especially involving sex and religion. For instance, entrenched divisions over a gay marriage plebiscite do not augur well for democratic dialogue and progress about indigenous constitutional and/or Treaty recognition, as foreseen by Anglican Primate of Australia, Dr Philip Freier.

A common critique of much religious involvement in social policy debates is its seeming sex obsession– bedroom, not boardroom or ballot-box ethics. My own Melbourne Anglican Diocese once produced a statement entitled Sexuality: A Position Paper. I looked for pictures only to be disappointed.

More seriously, the impression can mislead as the initiative in raising sexual issues often comes from non-church lobby groups (on serious discrimination grounds) or media looking to sensationalise differences. Much of this is due ignorance of the wide range of religious non-sexual, above-the-navel teaching and its public significance. This also applies to religious members and lobby groups. A greater familiarity by both sides with the broader significance of faith teachings on many public issues might result in more light than heat, and a less vociferous and troll-ish tone online.

A case in point involves the relative ignorance, both inside and outside churches, 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, forget their Christian roots, and that 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 for a family, rights of workplace association etc., was critical to Justice Higgins’ landmark 1907 Sunshine Harvester decision. This became the basis for the century-long Australian settlement in industrial relations.

Sadly, the throwing out of the baby of this broader social perspective along with the bathwater of patriarchy and over-centralisation has left individual sheep at the mercy of often ravenous wolf-packs in an increasingly unequal and unfriendly industrial landscape. Many 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 may represent the classical professional with security and continuity of employment the barrista represents the new economy of 24/7 and mature –age casual work. This is not just temporary or transitional for students in their teens and early 20s but a permanent precariousness for those in their 30s and 40s, across society, including academia. Such irregular, insecure jobs typical of the precariat, make it an increasingly difficult, even heroic feat of organisational juggling get affordable housing, maintain a marriage or partnership, have children, look after elderly or disabled loved ones, 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 that of 1907, religions, especially western Christianity, 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 living in a ‘cross-pressured’ society.

Most damaging recently to public religious ethics has been the moral apostasy of sexual abuse and ignorance of unprofessional neglect. It heightens the seeming and sometimes substantial hypocrisy of traditional religious concerns regarding shifting sexual morality and identity. The only valid response to such abuse must be restitution and renewal of transparent authentic pastoral practices, modelling care in manifold ministries of mercy and advocacy with the marginalised.

This humble practice of service is modelled in religious social agencies (c. 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 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 This quantifies what Charles Taylor calls national and global ‘networks of agape’ (or sacrificial, loving service).

Likewise locally, 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 church neighbour recently commented that despite not liking the institutional, authoritarian aspect of denominations, they loved seeing the global diversity and unity of Burmese Baptists gathering in my local Anglican Church. Such revolutionary cross-cultural practices speak louder than resolutionary words of synods.

As Jesus said ‘the left hand shouldn’t know what the right is doing’, to prevent public show, spin or PRide. But a more fitting harmony between pastoral best practice, prophetic advocacy and painstaking research may once again enable religions to speak in authentic and timely ways to slow society’s social erosion and promote preace. In a western world increasingly privatising the reach of religion, such healing words and deeds will bind up the broken-hearted. They will reflect true religion’s reconciling polity, not propagandistic, post-truth, partisan politics, being genuinely social, not just sexual, and public, not merely pubic. Towards this goal, the University of Divinity’s new Centre for Research will henceforth focus on Religion and Social Policy, not just sexual policy or positions.

Revd Dr Gordon Preece is Interim Director of RASP, the University of Divinity Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy, being launched on 8 December 2016.