This post is part of our series on the Role of the Moral Theologian in Church and Society.  We will be hearing from six Catholic moral theologians from six different continents.  We begin today with a contribution from Australia by Robert Gascoigne.


The role of the Catholic moral theologian in Church and society – an Australian perspective

By Robert Gascoigne, School of Theology, Australian Catholic University

Before World War II, the Australian Catholic Church was a minority community largely made up of working-class descendants of Irish immigrants.  Catholics generally had low social status and the Catholic community was tight-knit and somewhat defensive, in view of the influence of the Protestant majority.   A number of processes after World War II, including migration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and various forms of secularization and social differentiation, have now led to a situation where Australian Catholics form the largest religious community (about 27%) and have a similar socio-economic position to other Australians.  In addition to this growth in size, wealth and social influence, Australian Catholics are also the heirs of a large and complex web of Catholic institutions built up since the nineteenth century, including a school system which educates about 20% of all Australian children, a very extensive health care system, two Catholic Universities, and a wide range of social welfare institutions, not to mention the parish infrastructure.   This picture of social confidence and institutional strength is not, however, matched by high levels of religious practice.  In 2006, about 14% of Australian Catholics attended mass on a Sunday, and the participation rate of those in their twenties is only about half of that.   The number of seminarians has also declined to the extent that some Australian dioceses are increasingly dependent on priests from other parts of the world.  The sexual abuse crisis has also had a pervasively negative effect on the morale of the Australian Catholic Church.

This set of phenomena – institutional comprehensiveness together with weakening participation  – has provoked varying reactions.  For some, the future of the Church lies in strengthening institutional affiliation and loyalty, and increased militancy in relation to some of the moral changes in society at large.  For others, our changing social situation, which includes increasing levels of education and social awareness in the Catholic population, can only be responded to by a Church that is genuinely open to dialogue and inclusiveness.  This is the context of the moral theologian in the Catholic Church in Australia.  In my view, the role of the moral theologian is to communicate the Church’s moral tradition in a way that is inspired by Gaudium et Spes’ methodology of reflective dialogue with the modern world.  This entails passing on the richness of that tradition and its Biblical, theological, philosophical and magisterial resources.   This communication of tradition is profoundly enabling, providing Catholics with precious resources for understanding themselves and their fellow human beings in the light of faith, and for interpreting and coming to terms with a changing world.  Since the tradition itself is comprehensive, embracing the whole range of moral challenges, then the way to express that tradition in Australia should be equally comprehensive.  We should refrain from conceiving Australian Catholic identity as a counterthrust to some recent socio-ethical developments in secular society.  The lamentable frequency of abortion, the advocacy of euthanasia by many voices, and the range of social forces that seek to deprive sex of its deepest meanings are all opposed to the meaning of humanity in a Catholic perspective.   Yet this does not mean that Australian Catholicism should understand its own identity as being essentially about opposing such voices and forces, since to do so would be to mirror an individualist society’s preoccupation with the ethics of individual life and with sex.   Rather, the role of the moral theologian is to assist the Australian Catholic Church to have a genuinely comprehensive response to the challenges to our humanity that we experience today, which will certainly include life ethics and sexual ethics, but also social, political and ecological ethics.  In this way, moral theology defines itself not by reaction to some recent social developments, but rather by the comprehensiveness of the Church’s moral teaching itself.

Further, only a dialogical understanding of moral theology can make an adequate response to some of the ethical questions that arise in our society.  In my view, Catholic moral theology must acknowledge the contribution that constructive disagreement with some magisterial teaching can play – in a number of areas of reproductive and sexual ethics, the Catholic moral theologian can play a role in listening to the experience and voices of many members of the Catholic community and articulating these perspectives as contributions to the development of Catholic moral theology.    In this way, the Catholic moral theologian can make a discerning and differentiated response to the moral changes that are taking place, affirming the key markers of Catholic ethical tradition while seeking to communicate that tradition in a way that is open to development.

Australian society has enjoyed a steady increase of wealth in recent decades, due partly to generally sound economic management by a succession of governments of different political parties and to the enormous demand for Australian primary products, especially minerals, by the modernizing economies of India and China.   Developments in IT have also helped to overcome what an Australian historian has called ‘the tyranny of distance’, so that Australians are not nearly as isolated from the rest of the world as they were until quite recently – although they must still suffer considerable jet lag when venturing to the North Atlantic realm!  Since the 1970s Australia has had a largely successful policy of multiculturalism, including the abolition of the ‘White Australia’ immigration policy that prevailed until that time.  The very diverse patterns of immigration have resulted in a society that is very different to pre-World War II Australia.  Taken together, these economic, technological and social developments are precious opportunities for Australia.  Yet the moral question remains: will Australian society respond in an ethically responsible and self-transcending way to these opportunities of wealth, communication and social diversity?

For the moral theologian, some of the key ethical challenges stem from the dangers of complacency and self-preoccupation, and from intolerance of difference.  In my view, there is a good deal of complacency in the reaction to climate change by many Australians, and a failure to recognize that, as the world’s leading exporter of coal, Australia has a significant responsibility to the world in this regard.   Self-preoccupation is often evident in the lack of a sense of proportion in relation to Australia’s economic situation.  While economic pressures are real for those in poverty, Australia is relatively speaking a very affluent country and there is a constant need to remind Australians of this, particularly with a view to maintaining a realistic and internationally-aware political debate.  Finally, intolerance of difference is a long-standing moral weakness in Australian society, with its beginnings in the treatment of Australian Aboriginals by the early settlers and of Chinese miners in the gold rushes of the 1850s.  In recent decades, there have been a number of significant developments that have helped to give Australian Aboriginals some of the respect that is due to them as the original custodians of this land – these include the Mabo legislation, which recognizes native title, and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s official apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Aboriginal children in 2008.  However, these – and other – developments have been achieved only in the face of determined opposition by many politicians and parts of the community, and European Australia’s relationship with Aboriginal Australians is still often marked by tension.  Xenophobia continues to be exploited by some Australian politicians, particularly in relation to refugees and asylum seekers arriving by sea from Indonesia.  While Australian political parties do have a consensus about the need for a relatively high immigration intake, including a humanitarian and refugee intake, refugees arriving by sea continue to be exploited by some politicians in the knowledge that this will appeal to many swinging voters in marginal electorates.   All of these phenomena challenge the Catholic moral theologian to respond, mindful of the Church’s social teaching and of the constant need to lift the gaze of social and national communities above self-preoccupation and towards the condition of the human family as a whole, encouraged by the communion of the Catholic Church.

Robert Gascoigne is a professor in the School of Theology at the Strathfield (Sydney) campus of Australian Catholic University.  His current research interests are in the relationship between theology and socio-political thought.   He is the author of a number of books on Christian faith and contemporary society including The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society (Georgetown University Press, 2009).  His profile can be found at: