With less than a month to go before Australians vote in a national referendum on the question of whether to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Constitution, people on both sides of the debate are being encouraged to engage in respectful and informed dialogue. At a recent online webinar hosted by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Council (NATSICC) and featuring speakers from a number of leading Catholic organisations, they were also asked to make their decision in light of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

About 100 people attended the online webinar on 14 September, hearing from a number of leaders from Catholic organisations, including Jason Kara, Director Aged Care, Catholic Health Australia; John Lochowiak, Chair of NATSICC; Virginia Bourke, Chair of the Board, Mercy Health Foundation, and Pro-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University; Mark Gaetani, National President of St Vincent de Paul Society; Joshua Lourensz, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria; and Sherry Balcombe, NATSICC Victorian Councillor.

The webinar followed the release of a media statement by NATSICC, which indicated research conducted by the council had revealed ‘the Voice referendum sits on a knife’s edge’.

In this context, John Lochowiak explained on the webinar that NATSICC had established the One Journey, Together website ‘to give Catholics a source of information [about the referendum] from a faith-based perspective’.

The website features a wide range of voices from Catholic organisations, congregations and individuals who provide their perspective on the vote, as well as practical tools and activities, and information to help Catholics and people of good faith to learn about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and how they apply to the decision at hand in the national referendum.

One Journey Together Words Website Tile

Joshua Lourensz has been on the committee that helped establish the One Journey, Together website, together with representatives of NATSICC and Caritas Australia. He described the work of the One Journey, Together initiative as ‘responsive’. ‘We were gathering all of the work that was happening right across the Catholic community in Australia into one place so people could access it well,’ he said.

‘This One Journey, Together work started as a response to the referendum question that’s been put before us, and it has evolved with a whole range of organisations putting statements forward, a whole range of Church leadership thinking through what the Uluru Statement from the Heart means, and what the referendum means.

It’s a lovely example of health, education, social services, parishes, other Church ministries all coming together, to discern together: What sort of country do we want to be? And who do we want to be on this journey? How do we want to do it? We want to do it together.

‘It’s a place of gentle leadership, where we’ve asked people to respond to the situation we have now and the choice that’s being put before every Australian going forward, thinking through: how do we respond more deeply to the Uluru Statement from the Heart? That’s been at its core.

‘This is not a political issue, and it’s not a partisan issue. We see this as a moral issue and an issue of justice. And so how do we address these issues of justice and morality? We prayerfully think through them; we can refer to the Catholic Social Teaching resources, and we slowly and carefully develop our own positions.’

Echoing Joshua’s sentiments, Virginia Bourke addressed questions in the webinar about how to apply principles of Catholic Social Teaching to the referendum decision at hand. She said, ‘I think it’s not difficult to look at solidarity and subsidiarity—that decisions should be made at the place closest to the people that they affect.

‘For me, my understanding of our Catholic tradition is an expansive and generous and thoughtful and inclusive tradition that embraces others. And it’s certainly open to the invitation expressed in the Uluru Statement, which had a very powerful effect on me.

‘I found the language of the statement so compelling and the phrase that has almost haunted me is ‘the torment of powerlessness’, which is used in the statement in the context of describing disproportionate incarceration and youth detention rates ... If we can’t respond to that phrase, ‘the torment of powerlessness’, then I really wonder if we can be true to our mission as a Catholic health or other organisation.’

Mark Gaetani, National President of St Vincent de Paul Society, pointed out that ‘Many Australians, perhaps most of us, have little understanding of the historical oppression of First Nations peoples, of their marginalisation and their exclusion from major decision making for well over 200 years.

‘The society has longstanding connections with the Indigenous people of Australia, and we are very well acquainted with the disadvantage that far too many of them continue to experience … Our position on the Voice referendum is based on the values of our founders, who two centuries ago showed courageous advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable, the powerless and the many others who needed not just a loaf of bread but equality under the law ...

‘Our commitment aligns with the principles of Catholic Social Justice and reflects the dedication of our founders to creating a more compassionate and inclusive society.’

The 2023–2024 Social Justice Statement released by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in August, Listen, Learn, Love: A New Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, emphasises the importance of recognising the truth of past injustices, engaging in genuine listening and learning, and cultivating a spirit of love and solidarity to walk together on the journey of healing and justice, and names the upcoming referendum as an important opportunity in this endeavour.

In wrapping up the webinar, Sherry Balcombe, a proud Olkola/Djabaguy woman originally from Far North Queensland, reiterated the importance of the One Journey, Together initiative. ‘At the heart of One Journey, Together—and reflected in that name—was bringing people together to talk about the importance and value of the Voice, providing a place to centre the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and our communities, and to see that reflected in the statements from Catholic leaders and the organisations we all belong to, as well as many others.

‘This journey to recognition, reconciliation and justice is long and at times difficult. It won’t end on October 14, regardless of the outcome, and I’m glad you’re all here on that journey with us. Let’s keep our hearts strong and our spirits solid, and be on this one journey together to create a new Australia.’

All are encouraged to access the resources, activities, videos, statements and prayers that are located on the One Journey Together website—www.indigenousvoice.church—especially the Kitchen Table Conversations Guide.