16 May, 2019

Archbishop Polding writes about Elections

Archbishop Polding in the latter 1860s.
A carte de visite in the Collection of the National Library of Australia.
An election for the Legislative Assembly in the Colony of NSW coincided with the Season of Lent in the year 1856.  Archbishop Polding chose to comment on dynamics which were harmful both to the Church and the Nation as part of his Lenten Pastoral Letter for that year.  It is very interesting that the Archbishop made no mention of the policies of governments or candidates; he was much more concerned with the evil of discord.

The following is the pertinent extract from that letter, revealing how very little certain things have changed between 1856 and 2019.  

We are anxious also specially to warn you, Dearly Beloved, that times of public elections, such as the present, are full of dangerous temptations; and that many, it is to be feared, who are ordinarily right-minded and circumspect, yield themselves on such occasions to unbridle excesses in the spirit and deeds of detraction.  

The maxims and habits of the irreligious world penetrate so thoroughly everywhere, that we need to be constantly on our guard lest - even inadvertently - we give into the modes of thought and action utterly unworthy of our vocation as Christians.   We are called to do our work in the world after unworldly fashions, and woe! to us, if its unrighteous means and grovelling aims are allowed to occupy and guide our hearts and hands.  It is ours to show that political privileges can be duly appreciated - that they may be earnestly pursued and watchfully guarded - that our choice may fall on men whose characters shall not disgrace our vote - always in the spirit of perfect Christian courtesy, and charity.  

To misrepresent the personal history and motives of individuals; to ridicule personal peculiarities; to rake up animosities; to drag to light and exaggerate old calumnies; to invent and propagate new ones : these are means which men of the world, by a wicked convention, agree to admit, or justify, or even glory in, when they may serve to secure or defeat particular purposes.  We need only remind you that all these things are utterly condemned by the holy doctrine of the Church. Not to save a world from ruin - as you well know - may any Catholic deliberately foster in himself or others the hateful spirit of the detraction, from which such practices, and - what is worse - the extenuation and justification of such practices, proceed.  

And it is in this latter regard we wish particularly to direct your thoughts and invigorate your consciences.  You know how awful an aggravation of the actual deed of sin it is, to imply or teach principles that lead to it.  And this is done by the use of the Press - that two-edged instrument for good or for evil - as the mode of propagating calumnies and enmities in times of elections.  The most horrible detraction is recklessly justified or extenuated.  You know to what absurd lengths the wickedness is carried.  Even national names and animosities, the bickerings of race and clan in times gone by, are renewed and printed and reprinted, as if we had fallen back into barbarism, and as if the very characteristic vice of savages - the handing on of feuds of family and race from generation to generation - had regained possession of us. It has pleased Almighty God in His providence to bring us together in this fair land from almost all nations of the civilised earth; doubtless for a blessing, if it be not lost by our own folly and perversity. 

Before everything else we are Catholics; and next, by a name swallowing up all distinctions of origin, we are Australians; from whatsoever land we or our parents have arrived hither, be it from Ireland, from France, from England, from Scotland, from Germany; we are no longer Irishmen, and Frenchmen and Englishmen and Scotchmen [sic] but Australians; and the man who seeks by word or writing to perpetuate invidious distinctions is an enemy to our peace and prosperity.  The generation of today is not to answer for the follies and vices of past generations; and he who strives by bringing up the memory of past quarrels and injuries, to avenge himself for the past or the present, is endeavouring to realise the fable of the wolf and the lamb; hatred and violence are in his own spirit...  Let us avoid such an unchristian spirit and all its developments.  

As civilised men, as men of ordinary morality, we detest and despise it: as Catholics, we renounce and abhor it.  That man is a pest and a domestic traitor among us, who, by naming the name of nation, or race, or class, or past injury, stirs up by word or pen one bitter feeling.  Let us banish all such topics of conversation; let us not encourage such publications as abound with them.  In such deadly wounds to Christian charity, we cannot imagine any justification, nor will we admit any dangerous extenuations on pretence of custom or expediency.


All known pastoral letters of Archbishop Polding were published in 1977 by the Lowden Press under the title The Eye of Faith.  This extract from 1856 Pastoral Letter appears on pages 95 and 96 of that volume.

The 1856 election was of particular significance, being the first election for the Legislative Assembly in NSW, a new body devised for the self-government of the Colony. The first Premier of NSW, Stuart Alexander Donaldson, took office in June 1856, but was quickly succeeded by Charles Cowper and then Henry Watson Parker : all in the year 1856. Before 1856, the government of NSW consisted of the Governor (directly appointed by the Crown and sent from England for a defined term).  After 1824, the Governor was assisted by a partly-elected Legislative Council, which after 1856 was transformed into the NSW Upper House. 

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