The Catholic Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is a unique figure in world politics. Not only does he have unusual worldwide status but he has an army of several billion of his own church members. His high profile means that he is listened to like no other person in public life outside a very few political leaders, such as the President of the United States. This is so even among many people who are not at all religious.
Self-proclaimed atheists have welcomed his recent environmental encyclical almost despite themselves. They have agreed with his sentiments and assumed that many people around the world will listen to his words. On a recent issue of The Drum on the ABC two of the three panellists, including the political editor of a metropolitan daily, went out of their way to declare their atheism while welcoming the message of the recent encyclical.
His church followers include Catholics among political leaders around the world, including our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and many members of his cabinet. This fact preoccupies the media. Such leaders are regarded in public commentary as being the type of followers who will not only listen to but invariably obey their spiritual leader.
The combination of these two qualities is what makes Pope Francis unique. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, global corporate leaders like News Corporation's Rupert Murdoch and/or other faith leaders like the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Justin Welby, or the Dalai Lama cannot match him. They lack either the personal status or the apparently dedicated followers.
All this means that when Pope Francis published his encyclical, Laudato Si: on the Care of Our Common Home, many Australian responses played on Abbott's status not only as a Catholic but what's more, a so-called devout Catholic, or a famously Catholic Prime Minister. The implication was that Abbott had been wedged by the Pope, that is by virtue of his faith put in an internally contradictory position, from which it would be extremely difficult to extricate himself.
Many of Abbott's critics have long pointed to an apparent disjunction between his policies and his Catholic/Christian beliefs on matters like asylum seekers and economic policy. He is seen to be inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst.
In the same way too much is made of Abbott's Catholicism vis-a-vis this encyclical. Some of it plays gently on his religious beliefs, such as the suggestion by the Greens' leader Richard di Natale that he hopes this will be a "Jesus moment" or a "road to Damascus moment " for the Prime Minister. That wordplay is fine as far as it goes.
But those who go further and imply that Catholic political leaders usually follow edicts from the Pope just don't understand the enormous variety of beliefs within Catholicism. You just have to look at the Catholics in the Abbott cabinet to see that. The policy differences between Abbott, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Andrews, for instance, are enormous and this reflects the diversity within Australian Catholicism. Outside the cabinet there are many other Catholics whose views show even greater diversity than among cabinet ministers, not to mention those Catholics in other parties.
This diversity of views will be shown if there is a free vote on same-sex marriage in the Parliament this year. The Pope and the leadership of the Catholic Church are unequivocally opposed to same-sex marriage, yet many prominent Catholics will vote in favour if given the chance, just as they have in the past on other sexual morality reforms.
So to be consistent, commentators should admit that if the Pope is wedging Abbott on climate change then he is wedging Turnbull on same-sex marriage. In fact, the Pope and the bishops acting for him are more likely to be critical of Catholics who are for same-sex marriage than of Catholics who are against climate-change policy. Some conservative Catholic bishops in the US have been extremely critical of pro-choice American Catholic leaders like former presidential candidate and current Secretary of State John Kerry, by announcing their intention to refuse them Communion.
This is not to deny that the Pope's encyclical is an important political document in Australia among Catholics and hence indirectly for Abbott. The enthusiastic responses to the encyclical from the Australian bishops and from leading Catholic agencies like the international aid and development agency Caritas and religious orders such as the Columbans and the Jesuits demonstrate this. The dynamics within the church on environmental and justice issues will change therefore. In turn, as Father Frank Brennan, of the Jesuits, says, it is likely to encourage Greens' supporters within the church.
But this would be the case if a Liberal non-Catholic Christian like Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison were prime minister. The fact that it is Abbott is more of a curiosity than a really serious issue. The Catholic Church can appear to wedge many Catholic political leaders on all sorts of policies. If that really mattered, it would make life impossible for leading Catholics in politics. But it rarely does. They feel free to disagree with their spiritual leader and probably are applauded by the wider community for being free agents. It can be a bonus for them.
Catholic leaders are in a somewhat special position when the Pope speaks out, but they generally find it more an unwelcome irritation than a dangerous wedge when they differ from the official teachings of their church. The reaction of the general community is more important as Pope Francis himself shows by directing his remarks to all humanity.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.
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