Papal awards for WA Catholic politicians

Papal awards for WA Catholic politicians

Hugh Ryan

Two retired West Australian State MPs may be the last people to have received the Papal Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (for the Church and the Pontiff) from Pope John Paul II.

The awards were made by the Pope shortly before Easter, were received in Perth before the Pope's death, and presented by Archbishop Barry Hickey in a ceremony that coincided with the Pope's funeral in Rome.

Archbishop Hickey said it was entirely coincidental but appropriate that such presentations should be made at such a momentous time.

The awards were made to the Hon Phillip Pendal, formerly Independent MLA for South Perth, and Mr Bill McNee, formerly Liberal MLA for Moore, in recognition of their fidelity to Catholic principles and values in the world of politics, and particularly their commitment to the Gospel of Life during long debates in Parliament and the community on life issues such as abortion, the destruction of living human embryos for medical research, medical care of the dying and related issues.

Archbishop Hickey said the Pope's recognition of Phil Pendal and Bill McNee was an affirmation that Catholics could remain true to their faith at all levels of community life.

"John Paul II fearlessly promoted Christian principles in all aspects of international politics and human life around the world, and his recognition of two West Australian Members of Parliament is his assurance that it is important for each of us to do the same in our own role in life," the Archbishop said.

The two local MPs honoured by the Pope took their Catholic moral values into their public life and explained and defended them in ways that opened many minds.

"Others who stood with them should understand that they, too, are being recognised in these presentations," the Archbishop said.

"They lost the battle over abortion, but they have not lost the war. There is deep concern around Australia that things have gone too far, and that is largely the result of the strong defence of life that was presented in Western Australia in 1998," he said.

Phil Pendal grew up in a family of mixed religion and mixed politics, with his Catholic mother supporting the Labor Party and his Anglican father the Liberals, but he said he was never going to be anything but a Catholic and a Liberal. This upbringing taught him to respect the integrity of people holding opposing points of view, and enabled him "to remember that Jesus told us to preach the Gospel to every creature, but did not tell us to belt the tripe out them until they agreed with us."

Phil Pendal was a journalist and Government Press Secretary before being elected to the Legislative Council as a Liberal in 1980. His first encounter with life issues in Parliament occurred in 1984 when he crossed the floor to help pass the Labor Government's legislation to end capital punishment.

In 1993 he retired from the Legislative Council and won the Assembly seat of South Perth which he held as a Liberal and, after 1995, as an Independent until he retired at the February 2001 election.


In 1998, during the abortion law debate, he became the unofficial convenor of a diverse group of MPs and lay advisers who worked to defeat the abortion law and to salvage what was possible from the wreckage.

"We lost the vote comprehensively, but for the first time in a generation pro-life and anti-abortion issues were put before the Parliament and the people," he said.

"Abortion had been entrenched in people's minds for a generation because of the illegal but unchallenged practice of it, but I think we were able to get many people to see that there is more to it than a mere routine medical procedure.

"By the time the embryonic stem cell debates came around, many people, who still did not support us, were more open to consideration of the claims of human life in a living embryo.

"The period 1998-2004 was a watershed time for consideration of life issues in Parliaments around Australia.

"The supporters of life lost, but I think the debate is far from over. People are now more aware, reluctantly in many cases but aware nonetheless, that embryos and babies in the womb are alive and human, and their claim to life will have to be considered."

Bill McNee's first direct link with John Paul II came during the Pope's visit to Perth in November 1986 when he, his wife Lesley and their four children were chosen as the representative family to receive Communion from the Pope at the Mass at Belmont Park.

Born in the West Australian wheatbelt, Bill McNee was a farmer and community worker all his life and was elected to Parliament in 1983. He lost the seat in 1986, but was re- elected in 1989 and held the seat until his retirement in 2001.

Bill McNee said the 1998 abortion debate was the most intense period he experienced in Parliament.

"I was utterly surprised that we were even moving in that direction," he said. "I knew it can't be right, but there we were in the middle of it with many people arguing with great sincerity for the death of babies in the womb.

"I was in hospital for most of the embryonic stem cell debate, but the problem is the same.

"When you start taking lives just because you can't see them, life itself becomes cheaper and there is real danger for society - for old people, for eugenics and so on.

"If there was a good side to these life debates it was that party lines were removed and it was clear that the supporters of life were not all on one side of politics and not all of them were Catholics.

"The abortion and stem cell laws represent a real change in direction for our society, and we haven't seen the end of it. The damage does not become apparent until years down the track."

Bill McNee was known in and out of Parliament for his integrity and said that his faith and the strong sense of community in country towns were lasting influences in his life.

"Christianity gives you a strong foundation, something solid you can hang onto," he said.

Hugh Ryan is Communications Officer for Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth.

Bill McNee and Phillip Pendal with their Papal awards

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