Religious leaders must have freedom to speak

Religious leaders must have freedom to speak

Cardinal George Pell

The following is part of Cardinal George Pell's response written at the invitation of the Privileges Committee of the Legislative Council of the Parliament of New South Wales. This Committee inquired and reported on whether Cardinal Pell's public comments made earlier this year in regard to Catholic politicians and the Human Cloning Bill constituted a contempt of Parliament. It concluded that Cardinal Pell had acted within his rights.

Along with other citizens I enjoy the right to comment on proposed laws on my own behalf and on behalf of the community I represent. That is the essence of democracy. Therefore it seems to me to be an extraordinary step for the NSW Legislative Council to require a citizen to justify his contribution to the debate or risk a finding of contempt.

On 6 June 2007, the Honourable Richard Torbay MP, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, referred to my comments in the following terms:

'High profile and eminent people often make comments on legislation before Parliament. That is the nature of a democratic society, which enables people of all persuasions to voice their views ...

'I consider in this case that the comments made about the legislation before the House have been made as part of the public debate on a controversial issue and have not affected the rights of Members to express their views and vote as they deem appropriate.'

The Speaker's words would be equally applicable to comments attributed to the convenor of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research Australia also contained in the Sydney Morning Herald of 6 June 2007: 'The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research Australia said there would be electoral consequences for politicians who did not vote in support of research that could offer potential therapy for spinal cord injury, motor neurone disease, Parkinson's disease, and juvenile diabetes.

''There are patients and their families who are also constituency members will not vote for them when the next election comes along', said the advocacy group's convenor, Joanna Knott.'

As I understand it no allegation of contempt has been made, nor is being contemplated, in relation to the comments by the convenor of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research Australia.

Both my comments and those of the convenor of the Coalition are properly seen as, adopting the words of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, 'part of the public debate on a controversial issue [which do not affect] the rights of Members to express their views and vote as they deem appropriate'.

I need hardly remind Members of the Committee that votes in the Parliament are almost always subject to party discipline. If a Member of Parliament votes against party policy, that Member is subject to sanctions which may be imposed by party officials outside the Parliament, including expulsion from the party itself.

Natural law

Similarly, by way of example, a parliamentarian who supported a bill for capital punishment could hardly complain were his or her membership of anti-capital punishment organisations to be forfeited.

I am not aware that the customs and conventions of the Legislative Council have ever deemed such conduct by party officials or outside bodies to be contempt of Parliament.

On the much lesser 'offence' of making a bona fide contribution to public debate, I do not believe that a citizen of this State has ever been charged with contempt for views he has expressed on a controversial bill.

My comments on the Human Cloning Bill were derived from the conviction that parliamentarians who legislate for the destruction of human life (in any circumstances and especially in this case where no cures from human embryos have been effected during many years of research) are acting in a way that departs from the principles of both the natural law known through human reason alone and Christian teaching.

The natural law principles and the teaching in question are that human life should be accorded the full protection of the law without regard to race, ethnicity, sex, religion, age, condition of dependency or stage of development.

I put forward this moral argument as a contribution to the public debate because it is rational, an argument open to acceptance by all people of no religion and any religion. I was not asserting some supernatural dogma beyond human reason and seeking to impose it on the general community. It would be a sad day for Australia if only members of the Christian majority accepted the unique dignity of the human person. But this is not the case. Defenders of human life - from conception to natural birth - come from every section of the Australian population.

As a Catholic archbishop I am also charged with ensuring that Catholics know the moral teaching of the Church. The Church's teaching on cloning states that the cloning of a human being is wrong and cannot be justified by any known or imagined effects. The Church also teaches that destructive experimentation on embryonic human beings - cloned or otherwise - is an intrinsically evil act, because experimentation involves their dismemberment and therefore mutilation and death.

In asking Catholic politicians - and other Members of Parliament who are Christian or who respect human life - to vote against this legislation, the New South Wales bishops were not calling for the 'enforcement' of Catholic beliefs, but reminding legislators to fulfil the demands of justice and the common good that follow from the inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family. This is exactly the basis on which the Church also calls on legislators to protect the poor or to oppose racial discrimination.

In the press conference on 5 June, after reading the joint statement of the New South Wales Bishops, I faced repeated questions about the consequences for Catholic politicians who did not follow the natural law teaching of the Church on these matters, after being reminded in a written question that on 9 May, Pope Benedict XVI had spoken about abortion in these terms: 'It simply states in Canon Law that the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with going to Communion, where one receives the Body of Christ'.

In response, I pointed out factually that 'Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the Church', while also pointing out that legislating for abortion is not the same act as performing an abortion, and supporting legislation for human cloning is somewhat different again.

The phrase 'consequences for their place in the life of the Church' refers to the effect a seriously wrong decision has on the personal relationship between that individual and God, and that individual and the Church community to which he or she belongs. These consequences need not be imposed from outside by a third party such as a bishop or priest, but are intrinsic to the infraction itself and loosen the person's bonds to the Church.

Religious freedom

No one is compelled to be or remain a Catholic. Obviously outsiders are not liable to Catholic discipline, and Catholics are able in our situation of religious freedom to ignore or reject any Church sanction.

My task as a Catholic archbishop is to point out that God judges human conduct, as well as pointing out the importance of Catholics following Church teaching on matters of faith and morals. The vast majority of political matters are for the prudential judgment of each individual Catholic, but the Church is unambiguous that there are certain choices which are intrinsically evil and cannot in good conscience be condoned or promoted by faithful Catholics - the evil being known through right reason itself, as well as through Catholic faith.

It is possible that some Catholic politicians have been misled by the theory of 'primacy of conscience', allegedly an invention of the Second Vatican Council, although the phrase can be found nowhere in the documents of the Council.

It is difficult to know what this theory means, as everyone is obliged to act as he or she thinks proper. Unfortunately, as the Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles writes, 'the idea of conscience has been deformed by some modern thinkers ... [who] often depict conscience as a supreme and infallible tribunal that dispenses us from considerations of law and truth, putting in their place purely subjective ... criteria such as sincerity, authenticity and being at peace with oneself'.

From this mistaken view some conclude that Church authorities, and by implication God himself, must accept every conscientious decision even when such a decision violates natural law, the Ten Commandments, and important Church moral teaching.

In a democracy such as Australia any citizen should be free to argue publicly for certain policies on religious grounds; these arguments to be accepted or rejected by legislators or electors as they see fit.

It is my submission that it is essential that religious leaders, including myself, are free to express the position taken by their Church or religion on matters of public interest and debate. To prevent religious leaders from doing so has the effect of stifling religious freedom and hampers effective and open debate on matters of public interest.

One of Christianity's most important public services is to preserve and strengthen Australia as a decent, prosperous and stable democracy. It does this through its many works of practical service and care, but also from time to time by regular participation in public debate, usually by lay people, but sometimes through Church leaders.

So too legislators are free to use religious considerations in deciding their position on legislation. I might add that the same principle allows atheists, be they legislators or electors, to act on the basis of their atheistic convictions when it comes to the formation of legislation and public policy. If the right of legislators and electors who are religious believers to do the same were to be denied, then we would have informally mandated atheism as the unofficial state religion. This is hardly compatible with the principle and practice of religious liberty.

Freedom of religion is not to be reduced merely to the freedom to perform ceremonies on private property. As Professor James Hitchcock, the distinguished American historian of the United States Supreme Court, has observed, 'if freedom of religion means anything, it surely includes the right of every church to determine who is a member in good standing'. To deny that Christian churches and other faiths have the authority to make such a judgement 'is to deny religious freedom in a fundamental way'.

This implies that for good reasons a Christian church, somewhat like a political party or even a sporting club, has the right to exclude a person or persons from membership, and to recommend that they abstain from receiving Holy Communion or even, in some instances, to refuse to give them Holy Communion.

Moral teachings

One good reason for the high respect given to parliaments in Australia is that parliamentarians do not regard themselves as being above the law of the land. For the same reason it would be incongruous for Catholic parliamentarians to declare that they are above basic Christian moral teachings, while still asserting their good standing in the Church.

Although Australian life has been marred by sectarianism in the past, Catholics here never suffered the centuries of persecution that befell Catholics in Britain and Ireland; nor have they been victims of the mob- violence and church-burning that anti-Catholicism occasionally produced in the United States.

The idea that religion is irrational and must be excluded from public affairs is not a native Australian plant, and it would be regrettable if American or European frames of reference were imposed on the very different situation of religious life and public culture here in Australia.

Christians in Australia have long played an important part in ensuring that fundamental human rights are respected and will strive to continue this important work. My contribution to this public discussion on human cloning was made in this spirit and tradition.

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