Abbott and Costello meet Catholic Social Teaching


'Abbott and Costello' by Chris JohnstonThe latest debate over Tony Abbott’s religious beliefs and their potential impact on Coalition policy arose from an article by former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello in the Fairfax press on 28 September regarding Abbott’s decision to rule out the re-introduction of individual statutory employment contracts.

Abbott’s decision was consistent with the position taken in the 2010 election when he declared Work Choices “dead, buried and cremated” and an assessment that the current provisions for the making of individual flexibility agreements provide sufficient workplace flexibility.

Why, Costello asks, restrict your options when you are going to be attacked on your workplace relations policies, no matter what you say?  Implicitly, he is making the point that the polls are so strong for the Opposition that it does not have to rule options in or out as it did in 2010.

The article is about much more than these short points. It is, in substance, an attack on Abbott’s decision and his economic philosophy, delivered by way of an attack on the National’s Barnaby Joyce and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), represented by its newly-elected Senator, John Madigan.  Costello targets Joyce’s protectionist inclinations and the DLP’s past collectivist policies.   

Costello apparently fears that collectivist and protectionist views may have got into Abbott’s head through his past associations with the Catholic-dominated DLP. 

By pointing to the large number of Catholics on the Opposition front bench and their past associations with the DLP and/or the Catholic school system, he indicates that his concerns may be more general.

But, as his discussion of Joyce’s Jesuit education shows, the real source of Costello's fears is Catholic Social Teaching.

Costello is well aware of the broad history and basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching on workplace and economic relations, and their inconsistency with the free market fundamentalism espoused by some sections of his party.  He is, to be sure, more comfortable in the company of free-marketeers.  

There has been a high degree of consensus among Catholics about Catholic Social Teaching on work, workplace rights and economic relations since the seminal articulation of modern Catholic social teaching by Rerum Novarum in 1891.  It underpins the thinking of many Catholics from the left to the right of the political spectrum.  Social justice is at the heart of that teaching and remains part of the Catholic DNA.

But unanimity across the spectrum should not be confused with action in support of those values.  Some Catholic politicians, especially when politically-aligned with free-marketeers, have failed notably to articulate and press a social justice-based view of the economy and economic policy.  This is hard to understand because the view would attract wide support across society.

These values are not inconsistent with right-of-centre politics, either in Australia or elsewhere.  In referring to the presence of Catholic voters across the US political spectrum and the failure of some Catholic Republicans to articulate a Catholic view on a range of policies, well-known Republican commentator Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year:

'But though it is hard to identify a distinctive Catholic voter, there is certainly a distinctive Catholic teaching on politics – a highly developed and coherent tradition that has influenced many non-Catholics, myself included. Human life and dignity, in this view, are primary. The common good takes precedence over selfish interests. Local institutions – families, churches, unions, religious schools – should be respected, not undermined, by government. The justice of a society is measured by its treatment of the poor and vulnerable.'

Costello's article is not just about a specific workplace relations issue, but about a conflict between economic philosophies and different approaches to a wide range of social policies.  Of course, the alternatives to free market fundamentalism come from many sources and traditions. But for Costello the clear and present danger is found in the values of the Catholic social tradition and Catholic Social Teaching.   

We are yet to see a robust response from Abbott.  If he does respond in a way that takes proper account of the values of this tradition and teaching and applies them to contemporary issues, the response will probably broaden his political appeal, not narrow it.

Brian LawrenceBrian Lawrence is Chairman of the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations. 

Topic tags: Brian Lawrence, Peter Costello, Tony Abbott, Catholic Social Teaching, DLP, Barnaby Joyce



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Existing comments

Will Tony Abbott abide by Catholic Social Teaching with regards workplace relations policies when he totally rejects Catholic Social Teaching on the treatment of asylum seekers, which is an embarrassment to his Jesuit Education?

carol van Gelder | 10 October 2011  

At long last someone has remembered a papal encyclical before 1958. Leo XIII wrote about a moral society as well as working conditions. There are many good papal encyclicals before Vatican II that are not only worth reading, but should be read by the faithful to help orient themselves in the true teachings of the Catholic Church

Trent | 10 October 2011  

Will Abbott abide by Catholic Social teaching and place the common good of all Australians before his own self interests of pursuing the Prime Ministership?

Peter | 10 October 2011  

Thanks for this. Catholic Social Teaching is perhaps another Elephant in the room for both Abbott and Costello. Ego ambition and authentic expression of Christian spirituality often do not mix. Both men have already shown me enough to satisfy me that they have compromised their consciousness to the point where their public life is no longer expressive enough of the Reign of God. Both men seem to be, in my limited view, politicians first Christians second.

Andrew | 10 October 2011  

Whilst the DLP has many good principles based upon Catholic social teaching and the pre 1955 ALP Platform, it still suffers from being a purist party totally aloof from the ALP and uncomfortable with unions. The way forward is for Catholics to be humble and not bookish and to mix in with the ALP by becoming members. Let our role models be the quiet achievers such as Lionel Bowen,Mary Eason, Michel Maher, Ron Mulock, Hack Lang, Sir William McKell, Bob Hefffron. Forget the standoffish ones who retreated into theory and who remained aloof from the labor movement. Forget those who basically are Liberals in disguise.

Michael Webb | 11 October 2011  

I very much doubt if Tony Abbott and his colleagues know anything about Catholic Justice as articulated in Rerum Novarum, Quaragesimo Anno, Humanae Vitae and countless other teachings, not least the Sermon on the Mount. I seem to remember Fr Frank Brennan noting that there many (Abbott, Hockey, McGauran,Pyke et alii) in Howard's Cabinet who had attended Jesuit schools and "it (social justice teaching) didn't seem to have worked in their case".

John Nicholson | 11 October 2011  

I attended a Jesuit secondary school for four years back in the 50s. Our education seemed to be directed towards encouraging us towards tertiary education in five main vocations, Medicine, Law, Engineering, the Church, Agriculture and Commerce. We were streamed to major in subjects appropriate to that vocation eg Medicine (Physics Chemistry & Biology), Law (History and Latin) etc. General culture was catered for by English Literature and Languages.
Religious knowledge started with an elaboration of the Penny Catechism (which cost 6 pence), then next year History of the catholic church, then catholic social principles and in our final year Apologetics. Apologetics was meant to arm us against the atheists, agnostics and other opponents of Christianity we were sure to meet at University.

No matter how good (or bad) our teachers were the students followed the normal bell curve of distribution of academic success. For every 5 or 6 who were in the top 10% there were 5/6 in the bottom 10%.
All would be described as Jesuit-educated, but what does that really tell you?

Uncle Pat | 11 October 2011  

I can't see the relevance of the religious denomination of a politician's high school. Is it just because most Jesuit schools are GPS and expect more bang for their buck from oldboys? Hitler was apparently a practicing Christian too during his school years.

AURELIUS | 13 October 2011  

Why does the word Catholic enter this? Social conscience and preferential options for all in need from all who lead should be the basis of this and all discussion - not just another anti- Liberal message. There are good and bad in both you know and I am sure the current ALP is not living up to its supposed "Catholic" roots either. Treat others as you wish to be treated is what we need to operate on - not too hard for many but obviously for some politicians and many journalists.

Jane | 17 October 2011  

Through their silence, Tony Abbott, his hero John Howard and other members of the then Liberal government, were complicit in the torture of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, and other human rights abuses. What does this say about the Liberal Party and Tony Abbott's religious values?

Gordon Rowland | 18 October 2011  

The description of Abbott's stand is awry and, I'm afraid, naive. Abbott has shown he is willing to say anything to get into power, and he has a record of broken election promises, eg. his "iron-clad, rock solid" promise on Medicare safety-net before 2004 election. His recent "promise" about employment contracts is nothing more than a masquerade to allay concerns and win votes. His political career has been marked by hypocrisy and opportunism devoid of principles. Don't be deceived.

John Garrett | 19 October 2011  

The DLP is the most genuinely conservative party in Parliament today. In fact they would qualify as "reactionary" (a term of honour, not of abuse, for those who truly understand Catholic political tradition) and traditionalist even by the old standard- 150-200 years ago when Europe was experiencing its political fermentation, the Catholic conservative parties who defended the Old Order were right-wing. The DLP would actually fit into that category, whereas the Coalition would barely be centre-right by 19th century standards!

But enough of that history. A firm rejection of "multiculturalism" (which really is code for anti-Western and thus anti-Christian nihilism and celebrating nothing in particular), all forms of Political Correctness, a steadfast defence of the Monarchy (Altar and Throne), and a desire to address the cultural sickness, would translate into an eminently electable party. My kind of party!

David V. | 26 October 2011  

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