Cardinal Pell: defend religious freedom

Cardinal Pell: defend religious freedom

Cardinal George Pell

The following are extracts from the Annual Lecture on Religious Freedom given by Cardinal George Pell at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Law on 22 August 2013.

In large parts of the world beyond the West religious freedom is a life or death issue. Last August, in response to the military crackdown in Egypt which has killed hundreds of people and injured many more, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood targeted Coptic Christians in a 12 hour rampage, destroying at least 47 churches and attacking Coptic schools, hospitals, monasteries and businesses across the country.

Thankfully, in Australia and most Western countries religious freedom is not a matter of life or death. The challenges we face are of a different order altogether, but nonetheless serious. It is no longer unusual in places such as the UK, the US and Canada for people to be penalised or dismissed from their jobs, excluded from providing services to children and counselling, and dragged through human rights, employment and anti-discrimination tribunals simply for holding to, or merely expressing, their religious and conscientious convictions about issues such as abortion, marriage and sexuality.

Particular world view

In this situation religious freedom issues arise not from violent persecution but from the determination of government authorities, courts and tribunals to enforce a particular world view, especially in two closely related areas: relationships, family and sexuality, on the one hand, and abortion and reproductive technology on the other.

Diversity and tolerance are obviously valuable and indispensable features of a free society. However, as words, they have become part of the mantra of an officially sanctioned view of democracy with religious freedom issues tending to highlight just how limited the appetite for genuine diversity and tolerance is in some quarters.

For example, it is interesting and significant just how little tolerance there is for diversity if this means (as it should) making room for people whose convictions lead them to oppose abortion or contraception or the promotion of homosexual activity.

An Oxford academic has argued that "doctors who compromise the delivery of medical services to patients on conscience grounds must be punished through removal of licence to practise and other legal mechanisms", and medical students who are not prepared to undertake a commitment to provide "the full range of services" should not become doctors.

The law and practice seem to be already well advanced in this direction. The Victorian Abortion Law Reform Act (2008) requires doctors with conscientious objections to abortion to facilitate access to it by referring patients to other doctors who will perform the procedure. In cases where there is a threat to the life of the woman, both doctors and nurses are compelled to assist in abortion, regardless of their religious or conscientious objections. For medical students it is increasingly expected that they will not go into certain areas of medicine, or even go into the profession at all, unless they are prepared to accept the practice of abortion and other life-destroying procedures.

In societies which purport to value diversity, the way Catholic teaching on contraception provokes some people to fury is very interesting. It is primarily a teaching for Catholics, and as you know no one is forced to be a Catholic or to remain one. Like all Catholic teachings, this teaching is not imposed on anyone. It is proposed for consideration and free acceptance, and it is often claimed that even many Catholics decline to accept it for themselves.

Those who promote the homosexual agenda regularly do so by invoking tolerance and diversity and the beauty of the rainbow. Once again, however, it seems that diversity and tolerance only go one way. After the federal government conceded that it had overreached in its efforts to produce a consolidated anti-discrimination law earlier in the year, it moved to amend the Sex Discrimination Act in some significant ways.

One of these amendments removed the protection for religious providers of Commonwealth-funded residential aged care services to provide services in accordance with their beliefs for example, by providing shared rooms to married couples only. They are now being coerced to act against their religious beliefs. Surprisingly, Catholic Health Australia supported this amendment. When it came before the parliament the Opposition voted against it in the Senate, but when it came back to the House of Representatives it was passed on the voices.

The importance of this amendment lies not so much in the particular matter it addressed (the number of unmarried or homosexual couples seeking a shared room in a Catholic nursing home is unlikely to be large), as in the precedent it establishes for withdrawing religious freedom protections in anti-discrimination legislation.

Interestingly, one week after this amendment passed in the federal parliament, a NSW independent MP proposed amending the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act to remove the religious freedom protections for religious schools. These protect the right of the communities which established these schools to conduct them in accordance with their beliefs and teachings, and to ensure that those they employ and enrol will be happy to support the ethos and witness of these schools.

Imperialistic secularism

These sorts of attacks on religious freedom, whether made directly or by salami tactics slice by successive slice, are usually promoted by arguing that they enhance diversity, tolerance and human rights. However the diversity that is sought seems to be more about enforcing compliance with the objectives of an imperialistic concept of secularism.

The tolerance that is preached seems to be limited to allowing Christians to think differently if they really must, as long as they keep these thoughts to themselves and under no circumstances seek to act upon them. Human rights arguments invoking equality and freedom end up in practice treating some rights as being strong enough to extinguish other rights.

An approach to human rights which applies some rights so broadly that they can almost always be predicted to trump others, while others are read down, given the narrowest possible application, and always forced to yield to more privileged rights, is fatal to respect for human rights in the longer term. Religious freedom is one canary in the mineshaft. If it becomes enfeebled, other fundamental rights such as freedom of association and freedom of speech will rapidly take on a sickly hue as well.

The situation is serious, but we also need to keep things in perspective. There is no present danger of religious persecution in Australia. We have the benefit of seeing where the trends are leading in other English-speaking countries and can make a noise about it. As in the United States, Catholics make up about a quarter of the population and with the percentage of people of other faiths who are seriously religious we have the capacity to exercise our democratic rights to freedom of speech and make our presence felt.

Small steps

There is every reason to believe that some people would like to see religious voices and witness driven from the public square. By and large I suspect this goal will be pursued by small successive regulations or changes to legislation (such as the aged care amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act I discussed earlier), rather than by frontal assault. Both the charities and not-for-profit reforms and the Gonski reforms of school funding initially included attempts to increase significantly the power of government to intervene and control charities and schools.

The original ambition was to establish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) along the lines of the Charities Commission for England and Wales, with the capacity to withhold or withdraw charitable status from religious and other non-government agencies if they do not comply with government objectives, not least in the area of equality and non-discrimination. The Gonski proposals, which promise to deliver enormous increases in school funding to all sectors, entailed to the very last moment significantly enhanced powers for the government to make decisions about matters which had never been part of normal oversight and regulation of school funding previously. Both these dangers have been seen off, but vigilance is going to be more and more indispensable into the future.

While I think that greater regulation and administrative control represent the more likely strategy for those who want to wind back religious freedom in the longer term, there will also be open political conflict from time to time. This will certainly be the case if same-sex marriage is ever legalised in Australia. In saying this it is important to note that I do not think same-sex marriage is in any way inevitable here. I am not surprised that supporters of same-sex marriage do not want a referendum on the issue.

But if I am wrong on this and same-sex marriage comes to pass in Australia, there will then be enormous pressure to present homosexual unions as being as valid as real marriage, and to prevent the teaching of the Christian understanding of sexuality, marriage and family, even in church schools. There will be even more pressure to silence people who oppose same-sex marriage and to force them to cooperate with it, as experience from the US, the UK and Canada has put beyond any shadow of a doubt, with any legislative protections for religious communities quickly shown to be of little value. If those pursuing this goal expect Catholic parishes, schools and agencies to fall into line with these requirements, they are making a serious miscalculation.

Professor Mary Ann Glendon has drawn attention to one of the major problems surrounding religious freedom, namely "the persistent lack of consensus on its meaning, foundation, and relation to other rights". It might be helpful to offer some brief thoughts on this problem.

The Second Vatican Council's landmark declaration on religious freedom takes us quickly to the essential meaning of the concept. It means freedom from coercion in matters of religious belief and conscience. Everyone is "to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is forced to act in a manner contrary to his own belief, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits".

Unless it is tempered by solidarity, freedom can quickly come to be a radical assertion of the self against others. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) did not stop at declaring: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The very next sentence bound this claim for freedom and legitimate personal autonomy to solidarity, declaring that we "are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood".

Limits on freedom

What this means for religious freedom is that, like other rights, it is not unlimited. This is acknowledged in the major international human rights instruments, and also in Dignitatis Humanae. We are to exercise our rights - all rights, not just the right to religious freedom - with "respect both for the rights of others and for [our] own duties towards others and for the common welfare of all".

It is also acknowledged (as Dignitatis Humanae puts it) that "society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion". At the same time, as the United Nations Human Rights Council emphasised in 2010, "restrictions on the freedom to manifest one's religion and belief" must be non-discriminatory and "applied in a manner that does not vitiate the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion".

As Pope Benedict XVI said in 2011, "the Church seeks no privileges, nor does she seek to intervene in areas unrelated to her mission". All we claim is the right to carry out that mission with freedom. In the end, this is what religious freedom is all about.

The full text of Cardinal Pell's address was published in the October 2013 edition of Quadrant and the extracts are published here with permission.

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