This week has been a big one for religion and politics in Australia with the dramatic announcement of the result of Cardinal George Pell's appeal against his conviction on child sexual abuse charge and continued debate about abortion, euthanasia and the shape of freedom of religion legislation. But these are just some aspects of religion and politics 2019-style in which church and state relate at both the federal and state level.
These clashes overlap, but they include four different elements in which the mainstream churches, especially their more conservative representatives, have increasingly been pitted against mainstream society. These issues have been fought out within the women's and gay rights movements, the political parties and also, never forget, within the churches themselves.
The first is the continued working out of the challenges to the Judaeo-Christian moral precepts on sexual-morality and life and death issues which began in earnest more than 50 years ago in the 1960s. Abortion politics has been a staple of Australian politics since then, but the issues have also included many others including homosexual rights, euthanasia, and reproductive rights generally such as IVF and surrogacy. Many have been state issues under the constitution, but federal politics has been involved on matters of funding and national regulation, including same-sex marriage.
The general trend has been for a slow but steady loosening of traditional positions, meaning that representatives of the mainstream Christian churches have been on the back foot. The existence of eight state and territory jurisdictions has meant the pattern of legislative reform has been piecemeal and slow. The child sexual abuse and cover-up issues have put these churches further on the back foot because their credibility has been hugely damaged.
The two main flashpoints this month are the attempted decriminalisation of abortion in NSW (the final state to do so) and the introduction this year of euthanasia in Victoria (the first state to do so). Because our two biggest states have tackled these contentious issues they have effectively become national in terms of publicity.
The second element has been generated since 2013 at the federal level by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, though that issue goes back decades too. This Royal Commission shamed the Christian churches as well as many other institutions. Since its report in 2017 there have many consequences.
One has been the widespread introduction and strengthening of safeguarding measures and tighter professional standards to protect young children from abuse in all institutions, including churches.
The second has been the slow implementation of the national redress scheme, offering compensation to victims of abuse. This scheme has been funded by the institutions responsible, including federal and state governments.
Finally there has been the push to introduce legislation insisting on the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse when it is revealed in the Catholic confessional. This development has been firmly resisted by the Catholic church leadership, including Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli who this week pushed back against Victorian legislation and pledged personally not to comply even if it means going to jail.
The third general element has been battles over proposed freedom of religion legislation. While this was stimulated by the general trend against traditional sexual morality, as one outcome of the same-sex marriage debate in late 2017, it is a special case. Conservatives, angered by their perception of the conduct and outcome of the marriage equality campaign, demanded greater legislative freedom for the expression of traditional views on marriage and related matters of gender and sexuality.
Malcom Turnbull tried to appease them by creating an inquiry chaired by Philip Ruddock, but its report has not yet been acted upon because of divisions within the Coalition government and the wider community. It is now more than a year since it was submitted to the government in May 2018.
The Israel Folau case has caused a furore of its own after he lost his professional rugby job for breach of contract because of his discriminatory remarks against gays and others on social media. The Folau controversy has fuelled the culture wars in society and in the churches themselves over freedom of religion. He has been vigorously supported by the Australian Christian Lobby and conservative Christian church leaders, but not by many mainstream Christians.
The final element is the long-standing Christian contribution to social justice debates, including criticism of government treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, unemployment benefit levels, foreign aid and international development and climate change. Just this week the national head of the St Vincent de Paul, Toby O'Connor, has reiterated Vinnies' demands for a substantial increase in the Newstart weekly payment, joining many others from churches and the general community.
This church-state tension has exacerbated divisions within the Christian community and extended to non-Christian faith communities, including Muslims and Jews. That it should be happening under such a determinedly Christian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, with many observant Christians in his Cabinet, contributes further to putting religion and politics in the national spotlight. For every Christian supporter the Pentecostal Morrison has, there is a Christian opponent who is unconvinced even to the extent of regarding him as a hypocrite.
At its most extreme manifestation concerns about religion and politics may even threaten the architecture of church-state relations in Australia. The Australian Constitution, despite section 116, which underpins freedom from and for religion, does not enshrine the separation of church and state. The Christian churches already receive generous financial treatment through taxation exemptions and financial support for church-run schools. Its leaders should not forget that when they question their treatment by the state.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University