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Acting on Conscience Brisbane Launch Speech - Archbishop Phillip Aspinall

  • 27 February 2007

Frank Brennan. 2007. Acting on Conscience. How
can we responsibly mix law, religion and politics? UQP.

Archbishop Phillip Aspinall

Primate, Anglican Church in Australia

3 November 2006

An Anglican bishop once said that one good thing about being Anglican was that it didn’t interfere with your religion or your politics.

Yesterday, in St John’s Cathedral next door, the leaders of 10 Christian churches gathered with the Premier of Queensland and the Leader of the Opposition and numerous other members of parliament and local government and several hundred people. We met to pray for rain and for those severely affected by the drought. I had prepared a short talk which was about prayer, actually, but I began by saying that I bet what we were doing would be misunderstood. I predicted that cynics would say that the politicians were trying to divert attention away from their responsibility for public policy decisions and that members of the public would regard the whole thing as irrelevant.

Well, as soon as the service was over, a woman raced up to me in the courtyard outside here and told me that a fellow had been on talk-back radio saying that the Premier had obviously got long-range weather forecasts and knew that rain was predicted and that’s why he’d timed the service for that day and was using the churches for his own political ends. And a second caller had complained that he was sick and tired of having religion shoved down his throat and the churches should just butt out.

This little encounter between religion and politics wasn’t even an attempt by a religious group to influence government decision-making or public policy at all. And yet the reactions point to how volatile the mixing of religion and politics can be.

Frank points out in the book that Australians tend to think of religion as a purely private affair. We’re not particularly troubled to know that Australian law and politics are influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But we’re a bit more uncomfortable at the thought of Islam exerting more influence on the shape of our society.

Australians have no desire to live in a theocratic state in which religious views even of a majority would be imposed on everyone, including non-believers, with laws and government policies reflecting the opinions of religious leaders. But neither do we want to live in a country where the citizen’s religious views are automatically ruled out of court in the public forum. … In political debate about contested issues of law, government policy and public administration, religious beliefs are not trumps; but neither are they irrelevant.

The private domain of religious belief and practice poses few problems for us in Australia. But we are yet to work out how religion can be practiced and professed by all citizens who so desire, in the public domain… (p.22).

That’s the task Frank sets himself. The temperature rises, of course, when there’s more at stake than saying a few prayers, and Frank doesn’t shy away from some of the toughest questions we’ve faced and in some cases still face.

He reflects on the perseverance that was necessary to change the mandatory detention of children asylum seekers, and urges that we -

should not be too quick to bow to pressure from the contemporary majority arguing that the minority with strong religious views are simply wanting to impose their will in an undemocratic way. The minority may be espousing a truth about rights and entitlements to which the majority is temporarily blind or in which they are uninterested (p.92-3).

He warns of the dangers of inadequate checks and balances to protect individuals in a climate of fear and heightened security because of terrorism. In 2004 the High Court of Australia decided that it was possible to hold a stateless person in detention indefinitely without any court order to punish any offence. The United Kingdom, in contrast, has protections against such laws, of which Lord Hoffman said, ‘The real threat to the life of the nation … comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve’ (p.144).

Abortion, euthanasia, RU486, stem cell research and same sex marriage are all brought under the microscope, not simply for ethical analysis though that’s there and it’s penetrating. But Frank’s real interest and the books real value is in exploring the interplay of religion, law and politics.

What drives the book are questions like these:

To what extent, if at all, should a person bring personal religious views and convictions to bear in discharging public responsibilities?

What is the place and what are the limits of religious views in government decision-making?

Should religious leaders try to convince governments to enshrine their religious views in laws which are binding on all citizens? Should they do so only in some cases? Or not at all? Or only if their religious view is shared by a majority of citizens?

How is the will of the majority to be balanced against the rights and entitlements of a minority and of individuals?

Frank has called the book ‘Acting on Conscience’ which gives you the hint that he sees conscience as fundamental. I won’t give the game away by telling you why and how, but I do encourage you to read the book and see for yourself.

When I became a bishop I quickly discovered that people both within the church and people in public life often say, why don’t church leaders lead and speak up about the teaching of the church on X, Y, and Z.

And as soon as I did, sometimes the very same people said, ‘Why don’t you keep your personal opinions to yourself? You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Reading ‘Acting on Conscience’ will help everyone be clearer about a healthy and responsible role for religion and religious leaders in the public debates in Australia.

It’s a pleasure and honour to launch Acting on Conscience here in Brisbane and to pay tribute to Frank for a courageous, incisive and timely piece of work.

Frank has dedicated the book to Mirinda, Shannon, Bridget, Patricia and Angela (which seems like a lot of women in the life of a Jesuit priest): they are his nieces and they asked him to dedicate the book to them and also to make it readable and appealing to them. And it’s great that Bridget and Shannon are here today to say a few words.



Bridget Winkle:

Good evening Archbishop Aspinall, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and Uncle Frank.

On behalf of Frank’s five nieces to whom “Acting on Conscience” is dedicated, I would like to express our sincere thanks to Frank for this immense honour. We are privileged to have such a significant book dedicated to us. This book seeks to raise awareness, provoke thought, and facilitate responsible decision making with regard to important and complex questions confronting us in our lives as part of that pluralistic nation state, Australia.

As Frank states in the acknowledgements of the book, we did indeed ask for the book to be dedicated to us, and that it be a book that we could understand. Frank is a sophisticated, insightful and reflective author who has written many complex texts. And though we might not always understand the nuances of some of the detail of Frank’s discourses, we certainly recognise and appreciate the significance of his writings.

As John F. Kennedy once said, “In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience……each man must decide for himself the course he will follow”. The challenge to discern truth and be true to our own values and act with integrity in regard to the controversial issues outlined in this book requires courage and guidance. For courage each person must look to their own soul, but as Frank said in ‘Discerning the Australian Social Conscience’, “We need intellectual food for the journey”. “Acting on Conscience” provides a launch pad for thought. It gives guidance for making responsible and informed decisions about major issues in today’s society.

We are privileged to have such a dedicated and inspiring uncle, (soon to be great uncle). Frank leads an amazing life. He mixes with the big people, the little people, the acclaimed and the humble, the powerful and the marginalised.

Frank isn’t one to stay in the same place for long. He arrives one day, has a hectic schedule of appointments, meetings and speaking engagements, punctuated with social activities, and flies out the following day to continue the frenetic pace. However, Frank has always been available to be with his nieces and nephews to mark special milestones in their lives. Earlier this year he was able to celebrate my sister’s 21st birthday with us, and as next week I am heading to the UK for 12 months, Frank was able to attend a special farewell dinner. Later this month, with the impending birth of his first great niece or nephew, I am sure he won’t be too far away. So Frank, as the roles are reversed tonight, we are all very pleased to be able to share this special milestone with you.

On behalf of Mirinda, Shannon, Patricia and Angela, thank you for your kind gesture of this dedication. Your 21 nieces and nephews represent the young people of Australia whom you hope will benefit from this book. I do believe it will assist us and other young people to make responsible decisions that enact values towards a more tolerant and just Australia.



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