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Pope Francis' care a riposte to Cory Bernardi's world view

Date

Andrew Hunter

Pope Francis is promoting the need to help the poor by word and deed.

Pope Francis is promoting the need to help the poor by word and deed. Photo: Reuters

Few Christian voices were part of the cacophony that opposed the contents of Cory Bernardi's The Conservative Revolution. This is unfortunate. The message of inclusion, kindness and liberation that runs consistently through the New Testament is inconstant with Bernardi's narrow, intolerant revisionism. How will the Christian left respond?

The Catholic church has long been considered one of the most conservative institutions in the world. Pope Francis has elegantly but dramatically altered this impression, simply by reflecting the core message of the scriptures in his words and deeds. It is time for all Christians to seize this unique moment and take the focus out of the bedroom and into the slums.

Bernardi's focus remains firmly in the bedroom but, even when his attention shifts to other issues, it takes considerable imagination to find the scriptural source of his distinct flavour of conservatism. Indeed, many of his exhortations appear to be in direct opposition to the Christian message articulated by the Pope.

In his book, Bernardi identifies the need to protect plant and animal life as one of the two great threats to the Christian faith, yet the Pope has urged politicians and business leaders to ''protect creation''. Bernardi's determined focus on abortion stands in contrast with the approach of the Pope, who used the word ''mercy'' 32 times in his exhortation, yet mentioned ''abortion'' only once.

The greatest contrast between Bernardi's conservatism and the Pope's theology of liberation, however, appears to relate to the modern economics orthodoxy and the hardship it produces.

Bernardi says free enterprise is a pillar of conservatism. He is a free-market fundamentalist, although he admits such a system naturally produce winners and losers. The Pope, contrastingly, has derided the ''trickle-down'' effect, attacked the ''idolatry of money'' and has expressed his concern that the world's poorest 50 per cent have only 1 per cent of the world's wealth.

He was labelled Marxist by a prominent American shock jock, but his comments merely reflect the distance between economic orthodoxy in the West and a system conducive to the eradication of poverty and hardship.

While the definition of marriage is rarely discussed in the gospels, swaths of the New Testament are devoted to the need to ease the suffering of the spiritually or materially poor and the marginalised. Indeed, Jesus Christ was, for centuries following his death, understood to be a champion of those who are suffering, oppressed or deprived. The gospels offer little support for Bernardi's call to remove government welfare, nor his criticism of programs such as the ''good start breakfast'' clubs run by the Red Cross.

The gospels regularly encourage followers to prioritise the wellbeing of the destitute or marginalised. These teachings and commands are collectively referred to as the preferential option for the poor. It is the focus of countless passages in the old and new testaments. The first chapter of Isaiah exhorts one to ''pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow's cause''.

The preferential option for the poor is part of Catholic canon law, which says: ''The Christian faithful are also obliged to promote the precept of the law, to assist the poor.'' It seems the Pope has embraced this particular canon above all others. It is important to note he has not changed the teaching or position of the church - but he has certainly shifted its focus.

Addressing systematic inequality is urgently needed but any hint of income redistribution is derided by politicians supposedly driven by Christian values. How does the conservative attitude to wealth redistribution score against his understanding of Luke 3:10-11, in which John the Baptist responded to the question ''What shall we do then?'' by saying: ''Whoever has two coats should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.''

The influence of religion on politics is not new. An argument could be made that in a modern, secular society, the two should be considered separate. Yet if politics is a contest of values, contestants should not hide from the customs, experiences and beliefs to which their moral compass is set.

Values are too often forgotten when it is politically expedient. If politicians cultivate a public persona built on Christian values, their words and actions should consistently reflect the teachings of the scriptures and not simply reappear when the Marriage Act, abortion or euthanasia are debated.

It is difficult to be more Catholic than the Pope when the Pope redefines, in a short period, what it means to be Catholic. But if the Pope can descend into the streets from the Apostolic Palace, the time has arrived for all Christians to focus their attention on social and political change that will ease suffering and liberate the oppressed.

Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians

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