WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Book Review: Indigenous rights and Catholic social teaching

Dominic O’Sullivan Faith, Politics and Reconciliation: Catholicism and the Politics of Indigeneity, Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2005.

RRP: $44.99

Cecily McNeill

Whenever the subject of race relations arises, it is tempting to assuage the conscience with a glance across the Tasman at Australia’s arguably worse record of the now infamous terra nullius declaration [1778] which claimed Australia for the British by right of ‘discovery’, and the ‘white Australia’ policy of the 1960s.

Lest we become too smug, though, Dominic O’Sullivan has made a comprehensive survey of church statements both here and in Australia alongside the development of government policy in each country to produce this scholarly work.

Broadly speaking, O’Sullivan’s document challenges church thinking in this country to take as its guide Catholic social teaching rather than to speak from a position of political activism. He cites the Australian church’s greater adherence to the magisterium and therefore more authoritative stance in arguing the case of the Aboriginal land rights and to full human dignity accorded by the principle of the common good. He draws widely on the work of Jesuit priest, Frank Brennan, who is the Australian Bishops’ legal adviser. Brennan must surely be prized as a specialist in Aboriginal land rights having fought the landmark Mabo case through the 1990s. He has clearly kept the Australian church on track with Catholic social teaching and land rights issues.

‘The sustained, intellectually informed application of theological principle to legal and political questions that has characterised Australian Church contributions to indigenous policy debate has not been paralleled in New Zealand’ [227].

O’Sullivan compares the so-called ‘sorry’ days which have arisen from a bid to redress wrongs created when Aboriginal children were taken from their homes to try to achieve assimilation, with the reconciliation that has been achieved through the Waitangi Tribunal’s hearings of land rights grievances.

In discussing the struggle of the Wik people in northern Queensland for recognition of their native title rights, O’Sullivan suggests that coexistence of such rights with the leases granted to farmers over the same land is akin to the principle of biculturalism which has existed in this country since the 1980s.

Biculturalism, says O’Sullivan, has been seen by the church as ‘a panacea for the meeting of Māori aspirations’ but this has ‘inhibited critical consideration’ [216-217]. It has overlooked the possibility cited in Paul VI’s encyclical Octogesima Adveniens [27] that ‘every social ideology contains a possible ambiguity’.

‘In Australia the same oversight … contributed to an inadequate critique of the Wik decision from a Catholic theological perspective’ [217].

O’Sullivan criticises the church’s uncritical acceptance of biculturalism arguing that the Treaty of Waitangi does not support the idea that this country was established as a bicultural state. ‘Such an entity could not have arisen from the political and cultural circumstances of New Zealand as it was in 1840’ [217]. Māori were not one entity but many iwi and hapu, each with its separate governance structure, required by the principle of subsidiarity to be respected as a political unit.

‘The real issue for the church is advocating and promoting the rights of Māori as the first inhabitants of New Zealand, as they are taught by the magisterium’ [230].

Marist priest Gerry Arbuckle’s 1970 survey of racism in New Zealand churches comes under fire as does the Catholic Women’s League and the Justice, Peace and Development commission. But O’Sullivan praises the Northland/Wilton parish committee for Evangelisation, Justice and Development for avoiding jargon and focusing directly on issues inhibiting greater Māori autonomy.

I found this book exciting because it puts this quintessential nationhood debate in a context of church teaching which makes sense to me as a Catholic. I found myself nodding with new understanding as I went through it. O’Sullivan has done us all a great favour in crystalising the race issues in terms of the magisterium.