Catholic Social Teaching on Indigenous Peoples

Catholic Social Teaching on Indigenous Peoples

Catholic social teaching says that the life and dignity of indigenous peoples should always be protected in the same way that the life and dignity of every human being should be protected. It is deplorable that many people, even those from Catholic institutions have not always respected indigenous lives as sacred or treated indigenous Australians in accordance with their God-given and inalienable dignity.

So whatever you wish that one would do to you, do so to them.

Luke 6:31

When Pope Saint John Paul II addressed the gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Alice Springs in 1986, he began with expressing his joy at meeting them and said “how much the Church esteems and loves you, and how much she wishes to assist you in your spiritual and material needs.” However, he also recognised that for the most part, however, until very recently non-Indigenous Australians have been less attentive to the particular needs of Indigenous peoples, who have often been made to feel like unwelcome strangers in their own country.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania several years later in 2001 John Paul II continued to recognise that the Church had a task to help indigenous cultures preserve their identity and maintain their traditions, in particular the Australian Aborigines whose culture struggling to survive. (para 28)

John Paul II recognised that the relationship of the Church to the Aboriginal peoples and the Torres Strait Islanders remains vital but that it is also difficult because of past and present injustices and cultural differences. (Ecclesia in Oceania, 6) Ecclesia in Oceania also recognised that Churches should more thoroughly study indigenous cultures and communicate the faith in a legitimate way appropriate to indigenous cultures.

In his Address at Alice Springs Pope John Paul II recalled a story of Australian bush life:

If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bush-fire sweeping through the timber: the leaves are scorched, the tough bark is scarred and burned, but inside the tree the sap still flows, and under the ground the roots are still strong. Like that tree you have survived the flames, and you have still the power to be born. The time for rebirth is now.

In Ecclesia in Oceania, Pope John Paul II stated that the Church will support the cause of all indigenous peoples who seek a just and equitable recognition of their identity and their rights.

He also acknowledged “Whenever the truth has been suppressed by governments and their agencies or even by Christian communities, the wrongs done to the indigenous peoples need to be honestly acknowledged….The past cannot be undone, but honest recognition of past injustices can lead to measures and attitudes which will help to rectify the damaging effects for both the indigenous community and the wider society. The Church expresses deep regret and asks forgiveness where her children have been or still are party to these wrongs. Aware of the shameful injustices done to indigenous peoples in Oceania, the Synod Fathers apologized unreservedly for the part played in these by members of the Church, especially where children were forcibly separated from their families.”  (Ecclesia in Oceania, 28)

In the Social Justice Statement for 2006 “The Heart of our Country: Dignity and Justice for our Indigenous Brothers and Sisters”, the Australian Bishops once again identified the four areas that Pope Saint John Paul II addressed as continuing issues of concern. They were:

  • for all Australians to ensure the preservation of Indigenous cultures and to keep working for an inclusive multicultural Australia.
  • to seek and explore the points of agreement between Indigenous traditions and those of Jesus and all his people.
  • To learn to care for the fragile environment in the excellent manner that the Indigenous peoples had done so.
  • To recognise and admit past and continuing injustices as the first step towards beginning a reconciliation.

The Australian Bishops have recognised “We as Church need to continue to work with Indigenous people to provide encouragement, support and resources to keep strong those elements of culture and history that they wish to preserve. This will not be a one-way process.”

Deacon Boniface Perdjert, from the Wadeye (formerly Port Keats) community near Darwin, assisted Pope John Paul II during the ceremony of Beatification of Mary MacKillop in Sydney in January 1995. This is how he expressed the vital importance of his culture:

God did not begin to take an interest in people with the incarnation of the Son, nor with Abraham … So we must recognise, we must use the things of God that are in our culture … We are called to love God and each other with whole mind, heart and soul. So we must give ourselves to God as an Aboriginal people. This is what God wants or God would not have made us what we are.

Since 1986, several Aboriginal Catholic ministries or councils in many dioceses throughout Australia have been established, becoming a significant force in this dialogue of cultures. However, there is also recognition that a lot more can be done.

It would worth us revisiting Pope John Paul II’s words in 1986 in Alice Springs: what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me….Truly I say to you, as you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.

Matthew 6:34-36; 40.