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A Church to inspire public life

In a message to the diocese published on July 31, the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, said that the social teaching of the Church in recent years has given much importance to the active participation of the laity in public life.

Speaking in the run up to the September elections, in which Hong Kong will vote for the Legislative Council (LegCo), Cardinal Tong said that in the turmoil of political reform, a strong aspiration for more democracy and a basketful of unresolved social dilemmas, Christians should never give up hope.

“For this reason, I urge you to see the upcoming LegCo election as an opportunity for contributing to the well-being of Hong Kong society,” the bishop of the city said.

While Catholics will vote in the election and some run for public office, the election and political process of the special administrative region are also a subject that Churches should speak to.

In another age, place and circumstance, the Anglican archbishop of Goulburn (which in 1942 also embraced the national capital of Canberra), Archbishop Ernest Burgmann, described the commonly held belief that the Church should keep its nose out of politics and business as a deadly heresy.

“If the Church has nothing to say about politics and business today, she is dumb to the very things that need Christian illumination most urgently,” Archbishop Burgmann argued.

While noting that the most important thing for Christians in politics is to understand their ground, as good intentions do not cut much grass, he said, “What Christians can deal with are the principles that guide conduct in business and politics, the purpose for which property is used, the way in which man is regarded, the aims and ideals for which every society is organised.”

He interpreted this as meaning that the Church should be a school in which prophetic souls are informed and released to inspire the art, literature and culture of each emerging generation.

Much of his description of the political and social scene in the Australia of his time could be applied to Hong Kong today. Archbishop Burgmann saw its creative power failing, describing the political and social imagination as numb, and remaining content to mouth traditional phrases to which no one listens or believes.

The controversial bishop’s publicly stated despise for what he termed ephemeral politicians earned him the tag of Red Bishop with the media, but he was probably more accurately described by the then government whip in the parliament, Jo Gullett, when he said in 1954 that he was “at last a meddlesome priest.”

The Meddlesome Priest would no doubt have been delighted had he lived long enough to hear Pope Benedict XVI say that the Church has to play her part in political and public life through rational argument to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice cannot prevail and prosper, or Pope John Paul II say the right to private property is subordinated to the right of common use, as goods are meant for everyone.

As Cardinal Tong points out, parishes should encourage people to take an active role by either voting or standing for office, but the Church must also work to make parishes places in which prophetic souls are informed and released into the public square to inspire. JiM