Christian churches and the 'religious left'

Christian churches and the 'religious left'

Babette Francis

Much has been said and written in the mainstream media, mostly critical, about the "religious right", members of which have been depicted as fundamentalist Christians opposed to "women's rights". Hence the shock-horror of then Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who said of Tony Abbott's mild advice to his daughters that pre-marital sex was not a great idea, that "this would confirm women's worst fears about him". It's interesting that Julia thinks women might fear his advice on chastity more than his opposition to the ETS.

But leaving aside Tony Abbott and Sarah Palin in the US, whose every utterance on moral issues seems to be subjected to media ridicule, why is not equivalent media attention paid to the "religious left"?

I am not referring to the 1950s tradition of Catholics in Australia voting Labor and in the US voting Democrat. Neither Labor nor Democrats in those halcyon days were the parties of abortion and Same-Sex Civil Unions. In that era Catholics in both countries were influenced by their Irish origins and tended to be anti-establishment. The ethnic origins of Catholics in this century are more diverse.

What I am commenting on is the emergence of a contemporary "religious left", members of which, while purporting to be regular Mass-goers - and maybe some of them are - support abortion "rights". That is the defining issue between the religious left and the right. Other issues on which Catholic doctrine does not permit alternative views such as the ordination of women and homosexual marriage are also supported by the religious left, which at the same time has a strong commitment to multiculturalism and diversity, combating man-made climate change, and expanding government services - all issues on which Catholics may legitimately have a range of opinions.

The origins of the Catholic religious left in the US may arguably be traced back to the late Cardinal Francis Bernardin of Chicago and his "seamless garment" approach to life issues. This equated anti-capital punishment, pro-nuclear freeze and anti-militarism with opposition to abortion. To qualify on the first three meant one was "pro-life".

This approach effectively gave canonical cover to the Kennedy dynasty in the US, who were originally pro-life, but as the Democrat Party became increasingly captive to the feminist movement and reliant on donations from abortion providers, the late Senator Ted Kennedy and his son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, moved with the times. Though famously Catholic, and initially pro-life, the Kennedy clan absorbed a pro-abortion position in the 1970s.

As early as 1964, the Hyannisport Kennedy compound hosted a gathering of leading Catholic theologians and college professors who - in effect - gave legitimacy to a pro-choice position on abortion while still maintaining a Catholic identity.

One of these counsellors seemed to legitimise for the Kennedys a novel position that "distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue," according to an account by former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, who attended the meeting.

Obama health bill

The late Ted's son, Patrick Kennedy, has over the last two years been embroiled in a controversy with Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island over President Obama's health bill. He accused US Catholic bishops of not being "pro-life" because they withheld support from the Democrats' health bill. The Church's objections over the bill's abortion expansion, he said, were an "absolute red herring" that only served to "fan the flames of dissent and discord."

In response, Bishop Thomas Tobin rebuked Kennedy for his remark, calling the pro-abortion lawmaker "a disappointment to the Church and to the citizens of Rhode Island." In a subsequent open letter, Bishop Tobin warned Kennedy that his pro-abortion stance "absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church."

Kennedy responded that he was "not going to dignify with an answer" the bishop's letter. Kennedy later affirmed that Bishop Tobin had instructed him not to receive communion back in 2007 - an order Kennedy has flouted.

Religious left support for abortion funding in Obamacare takes priority over their commitment to "health care for all". Socialised medicine has been an ambition for liberal religionists during much of the 20th century, while abortion rights emerged about 40 years ago. But to the religious left, it seemed, abortion funding could trump even health care for the uninsured.

"Let us admit that in this debate faith leaders of various stripes have placed their ideological agendas ahead of the needs of the American people," complained United Methodist lobbyist Jim Winkler, without any sense of irony, at a December 2009 press conference. "These faith leaders have attempted to roll back the rights of women to determine their own reproductive health. This is not acceptable."

At a December Obamacare rally on Capitol Hill sponsored by United Methodists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and liberal Catholics, Winkler insisted: "The Senate bill should be abortion-neutral," by which he meant it should not restrict abortion funding. "American families should have the opportunity to choose health coverage that reflects their own values and medical needs," he added, "a principle that should not be sacrificed in service of any political agenda."

Shortly before the US Senate vote in December, a group of liberal evangelicals compromised traditional evangelical pro-life convictions by backing a compromise on abortion funding from Pennsylvania (Catholic) Democratic Senator Casey. This compromise was quickly denounced by the Catholic bishops and other pro-lifers. But it was the abortion compromise the Senate approved. The liberal evangelicals' eagerness to create a more progressive image by attaching themselves to Obamacare and indirect abortion funding will sideline their influence among most evangelicals.

In an entertaining Twitter on the website of, Fr John Zuhlsdorf has a helpful suggestion for dissident Catholic liberals: Why not ask Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams for your own Ordinariate? The symmetry of the proposal is striking given that Pope Benedict has devised ordinariates for those wishing to maintain an Anglican identity while "crossing the Tiber".

Fr Zuhlsdorf writes: "Many [Catholic] liberals now openly foment revolt against Pope Benedict and the goals of his pontificate. They are quite worried about, inter alia, the new translation of the Roman Missal. I have a suggestion for these Vatican II Spirit defending 'Vat-trads'. It's time to get organised! Ask Archbishop Rowan Williams for your own Ordinariate. You could get your own 'Vat-trad' corner safe from Rome and its interference.

"Within your 'Spirit of Vatican II Ordinariate' you will enjoy your most cherished traditions. Think of all the ceramic, guitars, hip music, big puppets and, above all, an English liturgy loaded with perpetually revised dynamic equivalence.

"After all, the old lame-duck ICEL translation has been in use for almost 40 whole years! That certainly constitutes a tradition worth fighting for, doesn't it? If the Pope wants priests to 'turn back the clock', to turn their backs on the people, turn your backs on him, I say!

"Hell no! Let's just go! See? Slogans are easy! Why don't we just say 'Anglican'? Freedom from Roman encroachment can be yours!"

Left's mouthpiece

In the US, the National Catholic Reporter is the mouthpiece for the Catholic religious left. On the day after the Pope's announcement of the Anglican ordinariates author, Jamie L. Manson, a member of the national board of the Women's Ordination Conference, posted an article on the NCR site with shrill lines such as: "Married Anglican priests and seminarians are provided with their own sacred structures, called 'personal ordinariates,' to enhance their spiritual care and guidance. They earned this special privilege by being vociferously misogynist and homophobic ...".

She goes on to praise Bishop Gene Robinson as "courageous" - he being the divorced father of two and an open and active homosexual who was ordained an Episcopal bishop in 2003, sparking the "Anglican fire-storm and threat of schism over the ordination of out gays and lesbians," as Ms Manson herself calls it.

Among US evangelicals, the religious left is represented by Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, and Richard Cizik, formerly the Washington lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, who was asked to resign, and did so, because of his support for same-sex civil unions. Cizik is an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama, despite Obama promoting the most pro-abortion policies and political appointments of any US president.

In Australia religious left policies are usually represented by the Uniting Church. Among Christian lobby groups, in the opinion of Angela Shanahan, columnist for The Australian, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has been a firm supporter of the ALP ( Weekend Australian, 26-27 December 2009). The ACL supports homosexual-couple registers and invited Richard Cizik to be the keynote international speaker at their national conference in 2008.

However, the ACL is generally pro-life except for its support of Medicare funding for unborn babies diagnosed with lethal abnormalities. Jim Wallace, Managing Director of ACL claims the organisation is not partisan between Liberal and Labor, but one wonders how the ACL can be non-partisan given that the ALP has abortion on demand in its platform and funds abortion in Australian overseas aid.

Wallace did say, when the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced Australia would include funding for abortion in its overseas aid, that ACL would remember this at the next elections. However, that did not stop Wallace from inviting Rudd to be a keynote speaker at ACL's national conference in November 2009, thus giving Rudd more favourable exposure to a Christian constituency.

At the Make It Count webcast between Rudd and Howard prior to the 2007 elections, the ACL did not allow any questions on abortion, and at Make It Count in 2010 between Rudd and Abbott, Wallace again did not question Rudd on his stance on abortion.

Meanwhile after a year of keeping a low profile, Richard Cizik is "making a comeback," as he puts it, by creating a split among US evangelicals and forming a "New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good", a group devoted to developing Christian responses to global political issues such as environmentalism, nuclear disarmament, human rights, and dialogue with the Muslim world. Cizik hopes to get funding through new friends at the Open Society Institute, a group funded by billionaire George Soros, who is way to the left in the political spectrum.

There are other metastases on the religious left such as "Catholics for a Free Choice", funded by the abortion industry, which tried to get the Holy See expelled from its Observer Status at the United Nations. The latest "Jesus did not condemn abortion" organisation is "Catholics for the Right to Decide of El Salvador and Nicaragua". Both these countries have pro-life governments, hence the antics of the religious left.


Patrick Kennedy has announced he will not be seeking re-election to his seat in the US House of Representatives. That will be the last of the Kennedy dynasty in Congress - for the time being. No doubt his decision was influenced by bad opinion polls showing him trailing against potential Republicans, but we hope and pray that when he said his life was going to take a new direction, he was contemplating Bishop Tobin's public call to him for repentance.

A similar request to refrain from Communion needs to be made by Australian bishops to all those Catholic politicians who voted for the Abortion Law Reform Bill in Victoria, for those in Queensland who voted for RU 486 and for legalising surrogacy, and for federal MPs who supported funding abortion in our overseas aid. A public call to repentance is long overdue.

Babette Francis is the National & Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc., an NGO having special consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.