Everyone’s fighting with Catholics in the news today. Most of Australia’s Catholic politicians are angrily attacking George Pell’s threat of “consequences” if they supported stem cell research, noted ethicist Gisele Bundchen is getting stuck into the Brazilian Catholic Church, and a strange man is clambering into the back of the Papal jeep. So I may as well jump on the bandwagon, if not the actual Popemobile itself.
George Pell’s suggestion he may move to in some way exclude Catholic politicians who vote for stem cell legislation, or maintain the legality of abortions, is nothing short of reprehensible. It is fundamentally undemocratic for elected representatives to make judgements of this nature on the basis of their individual religious beliefs, rather than the position of the voters that elected them and the broader society that they represent.
I don’t have a problem with political parties whose platform is based around explicit Christian positions, like the Christian Democrats. Well, actually, I do have a problem with them. But at least they’re being upfront about what they want to do. But with Tony Abbott as Health Minister, we had national policy on RU486 being determined on the basis of his anti-abortion beliefs, and that was utterly inappropriate.
Politics is generally not about moral absolutes. It’s about striking an appropriate balance between competing interests. With respect to stem cells, you have a division between people who think it’s a form of murder, and the need for medical research that may alleviate terrible suffering. That strikes me as an extremely simple equation to balance. George Pell is welcome to dislike the practice, and speak against it from the pulpit, and suggest that members of his flock not personally become involved in the practice, but that is the limit of his rightful influence. But the very idea that he should have the right to prevent people from worshipping because they have followed their oath to serve the community as best they can is a medieval attitude.
George Pell has no special divine insight, and I think this is what most irritates me about the way that the Catholic Church approaches these issues. It’s never about debate, and always about taking dictation. Pell is, no doubt, a formidable Biblical scholar. But trying to work out what Jesus would have thought about 21st century medical technology is surely largely guesswork. He spent most of his life railing against simplistic religious dogma that prevented the sick from being healed, so perhaps this might be a better example for Cardinal Pell to follow? But no. Instead the George Pells of the world try to bludgeon their followers into doing what they say. Earlier in the week he tried to get all the leaders in the Catholic school system to pledge to follow the Church’s teachings, and now he’s threatening to punish our political leaders as well. Is there a commandment that said “Thou shalt not bully”?
Seriously, if George Pell can turn water into wine (or wine into water might be more useful at this time, actually), I’m happy to take his opinions as representative of the will of God. But until that time, he’s just a man, and an unpleasant one at that. Priests have a lot to contribute to current affairs – look at Frank Brennan, for instance – but their role should be to teach, and to try and convince, not to bludgeon. And they would do well to remember that they have no authority over those of us who don’t attend their church – or even, really, those who do.
I do draw the line, though, at likening the Cardinal to “serial boofhead” Sheik Hilaly, as Nathan Rees did in Parliament yesterday. Not only is the Sheik considerably more entertaining, but I don’t see George Pell appearing in Chaser sketches alongside Anthony Mundine.
Gisele Bundchen – who I have always admired, though not generally for her statements on matters of morality – was right to heap ridicule on the church’s efforts to suppress condom use. George Pell’s opposition to stem cell research and abortion is based on the worthy idea that killing is wrong. But opposing condoms in AIDS-riven societies is effectively killing people as well. Even the most uncontroversial moral absolute has its grey areas and opportunities for hypocrisy. I’ve always been particularly irritated, for instance, by the way American pro-life politicians who refuse to acknowledge the complexities of the abortion debate are generally all too happy to apply the death penalty.
Hypothetically speaking, if the entire population of Africa were to die out because of the AIDS virus (with the exception of Catholic Priests, of course, who never have sex) should we expect the last Catholic alive to virtuously cross himself as he lies on his deathbed as some manner of sarcoma consumes him, and say “At least nobody used a condom”?
All that the Cardinal is doing is encouraging Catholic politicians to ignore him, and encouraging voters not to support Catholic politicians. If he wants to live in a state that’s run according to his church’s principles, I would strongly encourage him to move to the Vatican City. (They have excellent security there, apparently.) There’s a reason why there’s a division between church and state in this country, and George Pell is it.