Cultural and Religious Diversity in Australia

Cultural Diversity

Prior to European settlement in Australia, one could argue that Australia was already a place of cultural and religious diversity among its indigenous inhabitants, said Dr Frank Purcell at recent Interfaith Meeting on Cultural Diversity.

On Wednesday, 28 March 2012, during the Know Your Community session held at Shepparton Branch Library, the Shepparton Interfaith Network presented on Cultural Diversity and Harmony in our Spiritual Traditions. Speakers from Islamic, Sikh, Christian and Hindu spiritual traditions addressed the meeting.

Dr Frank Purcell, President of the Shepparton Interfaith Network, gave an address on Cultural and Religious Diversity in Australia:The Inculturation of Religions in Secular Democracies.

Prior to European settlement in Australia, one could argue that Australia was already a place of cultural and religious diversity among its indigenous inhabitants. What many of us don't realise is that the settlers who came here from Britain and Ireland also were a multifaith and multilingual community. Many of the Irish and Scots were Gaelic speaking Catholics, while the differences between Catholic and Protestant, between Established Anglicans and Dissenter Protestants were every bit as deep and difficult as those between Muslim and Non-Muslim Australians today.

One of the underlying causes of the tensions was the cultural legacy of those times - for thousands of years cultures had built their social cohesion on religious affiliation. People who didn't worship the gods of the king, were seen as disloyal and a threat to the society. Remnants of those times were still to be seen in Northern Ireland during the recent "troubles" between the majority Protestant Loyalists and the minority Catholics. Suspicion and fear of people of other religions was inevitable in such societies. The long process of finding an alternative to religion as the basis of citizenship is one of the realities which migration has forced Australians to face.

This talk is about the Australian Catholic experience of coming to terms, not just with Christians of different denominational background, but with believers of non-Christian religions and with atheists and agnostics.

After the religious wars following the Reformation, there was a growing acceptance of freedom of religion, of freedom of speech and limits on the power of rulers.1  These principles challenged papal absolutism, its interpretations of authority and its right to restrict debate and discussion. Consequently, successive popes in the 19th century rejected freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the separation of church and state and democracy itself.2 Catholics in English speaking countries including Australia were less negative, and in fact participated fully in the political and public life of the emerging secular democracies. They saw little threat to Catholicism in these values and as minorities fully availed themselves of the freedoms these gave them. 3 The American John Courtney Murray's reflections and theologizing on that experience contributed to a major change in attitude from the leadership of the Catholic Church in the 1960s at Vatican II. 4

The Second Vatican Council accepted that freedom of religion is essential for human dignity. Catholicism now accepts the separation of church and state and its implication that citizenship can no longer be based on religious belief, but it still continues to claim the right and responsibility to challenge the state in the event of serious violations of justice and basic human rights. 5

Another significant development at that same council, with an important influence on community relations was the acceptance by the Catholic Church of the action of God, not just within other Christian denominations, but also within:

other religions to be found everywhere [which] strive variously to answer the restless searchings of the human heart by proposing 'ways,' which consist of teachings, rules of life and sacred ceremonies. The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions.6

The document specifically mentions Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and says about the latter:

Upon the Moslems, too, the church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. ... this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them [Muslims and Christians] make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom. 7

This was a major development in the teaching of the Catholic Church and has had a significant impact on its relationships both with other Christian denominations and with non-Christian religions. Instead of seeing itself as identical to the Kingdom of God, "outside of which there is no salvation", the Church recognises that God's Kingdom embraces all men and women who live lives of compassion, justice and mercy in their dealings with others.8 This has had a major impact on the concept of the mission of the Church which Catholicism now brings to ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue.9

It has also influenced attitudes to secular democratic societies, which at their best, search for ways to provide legal protection for basic human rights arising from God-given human dignity, acknowledge the sovereignty of the people and therefore presume that leaders will be accountability to the people. Such societies aspire to provide guarantees of freedom of speech, the rule of law, freedom of religion, and have regulations requiring political and religious tolerance and the separation of church and state. A commitment to and respect for these basic human rights, not religious affiliation, has become the basis of citizenship in secular democracies like Australia's.

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1 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1974, 68, 83.

2 Lakeland The Liberation (2003), 17; McBrien Catholicism (1980), 677; Pius IX, The Syllabus of Errors, 1864 at

3 Burleigh, Sacred Causes (2006), xiii.

4 Linden, Global (2009), 8-81; Giuseppe Alberigo & Joseph Kononchak, History of Vatican II, Vol. V, New York: Orbis Books, 1995.

5 Roland Minnerath, 'Caesar's Coin: How Should Church And State Interact ?' in Australian E-journal of Theology, 11, Easter 2008 at; D. M. Jensen, 'Faith and Politics: The Rhetoric of Church-State Separation, in Australian Religion Studies Review, 18.1. 2005, 41.

6 The Second Vatican Council, "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" in The Documents of Vatican II, New York: America Press, 1966, 662-663.

7 The Second Vatican Council, Declaration (1966), 663.

8 Robert J. Daly, Sacrifice Unveiled: The True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice, London & New York: T & T Clark International, 2009, 24.

9 Peter C. Phan, "Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission of the Church", Australian E-journal of Theology at, accessed 30 April, 2011; McBrien Catholicism (1980), 724-728; Dulles, Evangelization (2009), 30-41.


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