The Catholic Agency for Justice, Peace and Development

Archbishop John Dew: Politics – a noble profession

Event date: 
09 Sep 2014

As published in The New Zealand Herald, 5 September 2014

Archbishop John Dew is the Archbishop of Wellington and the Roman Catholic representative in the National Church Leaders Group, a grouping of the mainstream Christian Church leaders who meet regularly with the Prime Minister to discuss matters of policy, legislation and social issues.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to teaching and politics as the “noble professions”. There would still be general agreement among most New Zealanders about the former, but less so about the latter, particularly in the wake of the Dirty Politics revelations and the political debate that has swirled around them.

It does no credit to political leaders to claim that an activity such as accessing the database of another political party is done by everyone. If something is unethical, the fact that it is widely practised does not make it ethical. 

Sadly such a justification casts a shadow across all politicians, when in fact most are people of integrity and goodwill of all political stripes in our Parliament. 

Church Leaders regularly engage with political leaders in different settings and on a wide variety of issues. It would be fair to say that we will not always agree on the priorities and policies of all parties. However, there is a great deal of mutual respect that occurs in recognising the deep commitment to serving the people of New Zealand that drives some of our best politicians.

There is a moral dimension to political representation. Our Catholic tradition describes responsible political authority as authority exercised with the virtues that make it possible to put power into practice as service. These virtues include patience, modesty, moderation, charity and efforts to share. The purpose of political activity is to work for the common good, which is the good of each person and of all people.

Power always carries the potential for corruption. This erodes trust and damages the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.  

At its worst it leads to a distortion of political choices and favours those who possess the means to influence those choices, rather than the common good of all. But even before that point is reached, it leads to a growing distrust of public institutions and a reduced willingness to engage in the political process. It becomes an area of public service that people of integrity and honesty do not wish to be part of – as a society we need good, honest and generous people to put themselves forward to serve as our elected representatives.

News media naturally are drawn to the whiff of scandal, and rightly so, because bringing into the light unethical and immoral behaviour through the media is one of the checks on the power of the State and a way in which those responsible can be held to account for their actions or inactions, as well as revealing their true character. 

However, this focus can also contribute to a feeling of disenchantment by everyday people who can see no good in politicians. There is less news value in highlighting the everyday goodness of those who work tirelessly with patience and deep commitment to assist their constituents through their dealings with ministers, government agencies and departments.

The public discomfort and even outrage around the current revelations is a good sign for our political community - it shows that people have not yet become completely cynical and disengaged about New Zealand’s political processes. It shows that New Zealanders desire a higher standard of moral and ethical behaviour among all New Zealand’s politicians and believe a higher standard is possible and necessary.

It is an opportunity for restoration and a restatement of core moral principles that should drive the actions of our political leaders, rather than become an opportunity for excuses, deflection or minimisation and justifications of unethical behaviour.

Last year Pope Francis told us that a good Christian actively participates in politics and prays that politicians may love their people and serve them with humility. People want to give their vote to a good person. We want to know that those who are putting themselves forward to govern are people of integrity, who live what they preach, and who consider the needs of the most vulnerable above their own personal interests. 

The news media would also do us a service if they could help restore some faith in our political institutions by highlighting the best of our Parliamentary institutions. In particular, highlighting the commitment, values and ethics of those men and women of integrity to be found across all parties who make personal sacrifices to work to make the wellbeing of all their constituents at the centre of their political activity and choices.

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