Chris Uhlmann: A call for a shared identity to meet today’s challenges
When Chris Uhlmann ponders the future of the Catholic Church, his late mother, Mary, is always foremost in his thoughts.
Mary, a former Catholic school principal in Canberra, was one of the “true believers”. “She and the other women were the heart and soul of the Church. These were the foot soldiers who kept the faith,” says Chris, once a seminarian who still describes himself as a Catholic, albeit a non-practising one, thanks to the values his mother instilled in him.
For the Canberra journalist and author – who has worked for The Canberra Times, ABC radio and TV, co-written political novels and is now Nine’s political editor – Mary epitomises the “grassroots” faithful who should be leading the Church into a new era.
“Maybe it needs to return to the roots of that small church that was revolutionary in the way it bore witness to the truth,” Chris says.
He advocates a return to basics, including embracing “the original blessing of humanity. We constantly forget the message of Christ – that he was blessing the idea of being human, in all its brokenness – and demand that people behave like angels,” he says.
The struggles the Catholic Church and other religious institutions face in an increasingly secular society is one aspect of what Chris describes as an Australian “identity crisis”. At the heart of the crisis is a disintegration of faith in Western political, social and financial institutions.
Chris will discuss this issue at the launch of Australian Catholic University’s Ethos series on public ethics and the future of Australia, on 9 December. He has explored it in the past, particularly after the global financial crisis and the Donald Trump chaos, but he says the pandemic has made it even more relevant.
“The people who have lost faith are seeking faith,” he says. “It’s a genuine yearning of the human spirit and people are looking for it in different ways.”
This loss of faith has left Australia with no sense of what it stands for, especially as interstate (and even intra-city) self-interest fractures national unity. Chris says this undermines our place in the world, especially in relation to China as a rising superpower.
“The question about Australia’s identity is important as we face a country that has a clear idea of what it stands for. We have no idea about what our goal line is; about what it is we would seek to defend. What is it that we all agree on?” he says.
Australians need to settle on a baseline of common beliefs – Chris suggests “parliamentary democracy; rule of secular law; equality of opportunity (as best as we can achieve it); freedom of speech and freedom of association”.
His own views, which he jokes are “clearly old white man”, are “free-ranging”. “I’d say I’m libertarian, if I’m anything,” he says, while lamenting the rise of a “censorious, moralising left that is trying to rule out of court everything it disagrees with”.
“I believe in freedom of association and freedom of speech and we need to err on the side of it being robust. We can’t be shrinking violets in a democracy, nor should we be trying to rule out anything we don’t want to hear or demonising the people we don’t like,” he says.