THE fifth annual Bishop Joe Grech Memorial Colloquium on ethics, migration and the Catholic response over the last 20 years was held overnight at the Australian Catholic University’s Fitzroy campus, with an illustrious line-up of speakers, chaired by Sandie Cornish.
The first was Bishop Peter Comensoli, the Bishop of Broken Bay in NSW. Bishop Peter speaks with authority on ethics, having already achieved masters and doctorate degrees in moral philosophy and theological ethics. In his address to a crowded lecture theatre, he reminded his listeners that, apart from the very few full-blooded Australian aborigines in this country, we are all ‘elsewhere people’, as he called us.
The theme, however, of his talk was making a distinction between tolerance and solidarity. Tolerance is, of course, the key virtue that makes peace possible, and indeed Intolerance is rightly labelled as un-Australian.
However, asked Bishop Peter, is tolerance a moral platform on which to build a harmonious society? Does not tolerance, he challenged, actually imply a separatist mentality? ‘You over there, me over here, and I’ll let you do your thing and I’ll do mine.’ Tolerance then becomes an easy ‘out’ to deal with difficult and complex situations, particularly in relation to asylum seekers, refugees and other displaced people. ‘It keeps the stranger strange,’ said the bishop. ‘And it’s definitely NOT the way of the Catholic Church.’
Rather, contrasted Bishop Comensoli, the real framework on which to build is, instead, solidarity. Solidarity, he pointed out, creates a bond between peoples, a relationship. Solidarity, as opposed to tolerance, actually changes ME! While tolerance shrinks our horizons and isolates us within ourselves, solidarity is always other-centred.
Bishop Comensoli’s address was followed by a learned oration by Professor Klaus Neumann, eminent historian and the author of many books. Apart from his distinguished career as an academic and an historian, Professor Neumann is also currently working on a critical history of Australian and New Zealand responses to refugees and asylum seekers.
Professor Neumann observed that the number of displaced persons around the world is approaching 65 million. Of these, only a lamentable 105,000 have been settled. When it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, he pointed out that Australia is being outdone by countries with a population only a fraction of our own, such as Sweden. Poland too has dramatically lifted its numbers and opened its arms to those fleeing persecution and death. The three leading nations admitting refugees? Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon.
Furthermore, pointed out the professor, we are not doing so well in actually caring for the ones who are here, enclosed as they are within detention centres, a process (mandatory detention) that has been in place in this country since 1992.
One interesting comparison arose. In post-war Australia, in 1949, 75,000 displaced persons were accommodated, and that massive number in an Australia with a significantly smaller population than today.
Professor Neumann pointed out that the EU presently is looking at a quota system for its member nations, something that Australia may well look at more closely.
The challenge, according to the professor, is that public debate in this country is seriously uninformed and driven by a parochial mentality, prejudice and apathy.
Professor Neumann urged a different kind of debate, one focussed on the principles espoused and presented by Pope Francis, driven not even so much by the virtue of compassion, but by solidarity, echoing the remarks made by Bishop Peter Comensoli.
The Honourable Michael Danby, the Federal member for Melbourne Ports, and Labor politician since 1998, was next to speak. Mr. Danby spoke at length about not only the cultural diversity brought to Australia by migrants, but also significant economic prosperity. One year of migration, measured in terms of output and increased productivity, brought a $500 million boost to the Australian economy. ‘Since we are looking at the last 20 years of migration to Australia,’ he smiled, ‘do the math!’
Mr. Danby went on to suggest that under a future Labor government, annual immigration numbers will virtually double, from the 13,000 of today to a 27,000 quota.
His remarks concluded with the observation that the real need in Australia in how we think (and therefore how we act) about immigration, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, is for Australia to rise as a nation in increased compassion, fairness and generosity. Get those right, he affirmed, and the policies will follow.
Concluding the evening, before questions from the floor, international visitor Father Fabio Baggio spoke. Father Baggio is a Scalabrinian Missionary, the Director of the Scalabrini International Migration Institute in Rome, as well as professor at the Pontificia Univesitas Urbaniana in Rome. In addition, he is also the Director of the Scalabrinian migration network’s Development Office for Europe and Africa. Father Fabio spoke about the Church’s role over the last 20 years. He lamented that debate on the issues is frequently used for political purposes, and pointed to the Church’s magisterial documents over two decades, consistently highlighting the need for reorganisation of our ‘unique community of people’, that is, humanity.
True and meaningful migration governance calls, he said, for closer cooperation between nations, greater hospitality, complete solidarity. Solidarity, indeed, is a duty which can not be disregarded, as Church teaching consistently proposes. The world needs greater development of effective support mechanisms, particularly to nourish and sustain women and children, he said.
The Church continually calls, stated Father Baggio, for intervention on the root causes of injustice and for equitable access to the common good for ALL citizens, precisely as Pope Francis demands. Particularly troubling, he pointed out, is the issue of confinement. Millions of people all over the globe are presently restrained in inadequate conditions, where their very survival is in real jeopardy.
In fact, said Father Fabio, there are something in the vicinity of 38 million internationally displaced persons right now, of whom 19.5 million are refugees. This represents an ethical dilemma of huge proportions, and it is ethical paradigms, he concluded, that need to shape every exercise dealing with the fate of migrants, displaced people, asylum seekers and refugees.
Those remarks were echoed by Father Maurizio Pettena, director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office, in closing the evening and thanking the eminent and distinguished panel of speakers.
‘Ethics,’ said Father Pettena,’ must drive the moral imperative.’
This article was first published by Peter Byrne at the Archdiocese of Melbourne