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Abbott and the new Catholic Conservatism


Quarterly Essay, What's Right?, Waleed AlyDr Waleed Aly of Monash University impressively argues in his current Australian Quarterly Essay that conservative parties have backed themselves into a corner by embracing free-market extremism, and that an illiberal social policy, combined with a free-market economics, offers little hope for Australia.

This is precisely the policy territory inhabited by the Australian Coalition Parties, and begs the question, given the preponderance of Catholics in their senior ranks, as to whether the philosophy of the Coalition can accommodate a Catholic emphasis on social justice.

In general Aly's argument, that a reactionary brand of politics is unlikely to work because a better educated public opinion is swiftly leaving it behind, particularly on questions of global warming and the GFC, is to be welcomed. Aly's may be a clear — even a necessary — argument, but it is not an original one.

Political scientists have long been acquainted with Lipset's typology of the Radical Right, in which he and his confreres, Daniel Bell and Theodore Adorno, make crystalline the proposition that a Catholic politics is a politics of the centre, opposed to both collectivism and capitalism.

Does Aly's contribution to a much-needed new conservative policy discourse offer hope for those wedded to the resuscitation of an Australian political Catholicism, or does his analysis mark a radical incompatibility between the positions of a Liberal leader and the fundamental claims of the Catholic social justice tradition?

To answer this question is not only to depart from the depictions and continua of the right and left but also to engage in a kind of Socratic critique of Catholic Social Teaching to establish where it sits on some of the abiding socio-economic questions of the 21st century, such as women's and homosexual rights, global warming, the ubiquitous intrusion of the free-market into everyday life, the predicament of refugees and Indigenous people and a host of other complex imponderables manifestly unaddressed by Catholic Social Teaching alongside its standard contributions to the discourse of justice and peace.

Thus, the problem with conservative politics may not simply be semantic, reflecting an inability to comprehend Aly's distinction between 'conservative' and 'neoliberal', 'right' and 'left'; it may simply be that a familiarity with Catholic Social Teaching is inadequate on its own to inform a contemporary Catholic political consciousness, thus accounting for a disparity of policy positions between the likes of an Abbott and a Blair.

Indeed, with so many of Labor's policies being unashamedly neo-liberal, it makes sense for the Coalition to advance a case for an alternative conservative social and economic program for Australia. How this is done is as important as what it is, as its family-friendly Paid Parental Leave policy demonstrates.

To move in such a direction, at considerable expense to the business sector, is to justify statist intervention to serve the common good. Rudd's failure to do this has exposed Labor hype on 'working families' at the cost of family-friendly policy. It also offers the kind of policy leeway to expose Rudd's now empty assurances on refugees and climate change.

Such a reconfiguration would restore some semblance of the politics of Menzies, who championed a role for the state in a corporatist-centrist Australian politics that has too easily been abandoned. Remember too that the first changes to White Australia were made by the Coalition Parties against the objections of Calwellian Labor.

Indigenous intervention was a form of protectionism long overdue, rather than a bland reliance on socially liberal policy. Indeed, there is much to salvage from Howard's policies, misconstrued as universally liberal and bereft of state intervention in the interests of the underprivileged that could be reworked into a new policy front on this score. More could be done to link such a policy frame with several aspects of Catholic Social Teaching, especially on industrial relations.

The Coalition could heal a suppurating sore in the Australian body politic by integrating low-fee private schools into a localised, varied and choice-driven public education system, through school-funding arrangements similar to those obtaining in other countries, giving parents valuable school choice without making it dependent on the payment of fees. This is a matter currently vexing Catholic education authorities, conscious that their demographic is steadily becoming wealthier, privatised and less Catholic.

In general then, such a shift is better countenanced in terms of issues that politicise Catholics and their allies, such as school funding, the treatment of refugees and bioethical questions, than a vague desire to conform to a Catholic Social Teaching that is manifestly silent on major questions of culture and society.

In fact religious politics have been successfully employed whenever Catholic principles have come under threat. What better time to resurrect a new kind of conservative Catholic politics than now, as much on bioethical questions as on parental choice of schooling, the human rights of refugees and the unborn, as on Indigenous policy and industrial relations!

Michael FurtadoDr Michael Furtado of The University of Queensland is a Graduate of Plater Catholic Social Justice College, Oxford. His research field is the funding of Catholic schools.

Topic tags: waleed aly, robert menzies, john howard, indigenous intervention, catholic social teaching



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Existing comments

I found Dr Furtado's piece almost impossible to read. His long sentences (8 lines should flash warnings)get out of control; they need to be disciplined if his argument is to move by clear and ordered steps.

Joe Castley | 19 April 2010  

Hear hear Michael!

As a former Catholic school teacher, now Mum at home, I see the local Catholic school as only one of the options for my children. This is because I need the Principal to earn my trust that she will encourage a peaceful and joyful learning environment. When I have met her on a few occasions to do with the Parish, she has appeared preoccupied and lacking in presence, little better than the most bureaucratic public school principal I've worked for. If faith is to be significant it will need to be experienced in the atmosphere of the school. I want to see an environment in which the personal giftedness of being human is treasured and cultivated. A Principal who indicates their capacity to do this must be both religious and secular in their strength.

Louise Jeffree | 19 April 2010  

Dr Furtado's piece is as confused as it is confusing. He says, citing Aly: "because a better educated public opinion is swiftly leaving it behind, particularly on questions of global warming and the GFC, is to be welcomed". Well ... the facts are very different. There seems to have been a moving away from the "great moral challenge" among ordinary people not least because of the (unfair) judgements made against the British scientists, and the Himalayan affair. He also says: "women's and homosexual rights, global warming, the ubiquitous intrusion of the free-market into everyday life, the predicament of refugees and Indigenous people and a host of other complex imponderables manifestly unaddressed by Catholic Social Teaching". This is simply unbelievable. Dr Furtado needs to read the Encyclical letters of JP2 to see that these questions have in fact been addressed, and Dignitas personae deals specifically with the bioethical questions. Let's worry less about labels and unfair judgments where so-called "Catholic conservatives" are concerned. And let us give full weight to the teachings of the Church as they are and allow them to inform our political judgements. But to do that you actually have to read the documents themselves.

Fr John Fleming | 19 April 2010  

Furtado's opening sentence is incorrect-Waleed Aly has not been awarded a PhD by anyone. He is a lecturer in politics but has no background in the area - his degrees being in engineering and in law.

ganesh sahathevan | 19 April 2010  

I am rather bemused by the grumbling response to this article.I thought it was pretty readable and had many elements of wisdom. No piece is perfect!!

eugene | 19 April 2010  

Dr Furtado seems to have missed the annual publications by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council of the annual Social Justice Sunday statements from the Catholic bishops of Australia. If Catholic politicians like Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey et al had been reading and taking heed of the clear messages contained in them, they would have seen the principles of Catholic Social Justice applied to many of the issues that Dr Furtado refers to, and that he says these principles cannot or do not address.
The Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney has also gained publicity for its efforts, based on CST, to influence Government policy on refugees and Aboriginal Australians. There are efforts by other Australian Religious (women in particular) to address the plight of those caught up in the sex trade in Australia.

One does not need to go to the less accessible and more philosophical writings contained in papal encyclicals to find thinking more directly applicable to the Australian context.

Shane J. Wood | 19 April 2010  

A piece like this one must serve two masters, the first rightly insistent on the use of a pastoral and accessible language and the second desirably engaged with the vernacular of politics and policy. To aim for both and achieve neither would indeed be a tragedy.

As to Dr Fleming’s comments, a Catholic politics, while strongly influenced by the teaching of the natural law, must also engage with the culture to which it speaks. Given that a clear hiatus exists between the claims of women and homosexual persons on the one hand, and an official papal rejection of the same on the other, I was simply alluding to an immobilism on these questions that yields little hope for immediate policy resolution or any other form of progress or dialogue.

I commend the work of the ACSJC. However, it is deliberately intended for a general audience rather than as a direct influence on the policies of various political parties, as used to be the case with the CCJP. Similarly, the stentorian efforts of the Edmund Rice Centre and other - especially women’s - congregations should, in my view, also include shining the spotlight of their social analysis on their schools.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 20 April 2010  

Bravo Michael, both for the article and the on-the-ball response to your critics. Politics is essentially pragmatic and there is a need for religious and ethical people to engage in real life.

Edward Fido | 20 April 2010  

The ACSJC has obviously taken the view that it is better to educate their constituency in an open and transparent manner, and allow the people to vote according to their consciences with the guidance from the bishops statements as one of the 'inputs'.

The alternative of going back to the days of back room bargaining between individual bishops with an overblown sense of their own importance, intelligence, and influence, and individual politicians who might buckle under the moral pressure (threats?) of those bishops seems to me to be far less desirable - even if one could contemplate that it would actually have any effect in today's political landscape. The fact that the ACSJC's messages seem to fall on fallow ground for the most part might be seen more as a comment upon the current loss of trust and confidence in the messengers than in the rightness of the message.

If the church - and the bishops are the public face of that church - wants to be successful in influencing public political opinion, then their need to reclaim their authority in the internal forum of the local and national church by responding pastorally to the critical needs of their people.

Shane J. Wood | 20 April 2010  

Whilst I haven't yet read Waheed Aly's essay and I will, I'm slightly intrigued/bemused at any description of Catholic conservatism as "new": I think Catholic politics has been largely conservative, in my view, since the time of Paul. Indeed a continuous historical sore in the eyes of many, Catholics and others, at the sharp marginalised end of society, is the many examples where Catholic leaders (both lay and episcopal)have sided with vested power-wielding interests. Liberation theology may never have even been conceived had this not been the case, and it is possible to think Francis of Assisi is one of a very few genuine "political" radicals that made it.

It is my belief that Catholic politics is inherently conservative because it is always constrained by a persistent inertia within Catholic theology and the paramount importance that it gives the developed, visible ecclesiastic forms. I think that is why you will only find authentic Catholic radicalism in laity or religious orders actually immersed in the preferential option for the poor and dispossessed, and why politicians in the mainstream parties all begin to resemble and behave like one another.

Stephen Kellett | 20 April 2010  

True; though there is a history of Catholic political radicalism in defence of causes dear to Catholics, such as on the schools question between 1870 and 1940 when European Catholic parties, depending on the electoral strength of Catholics, proliferated in Europe. In English-speaking polities Catholics, given their former status as underdogs, colonised parties of the Left to assert their righteous claims.

Where Leftist parties, as in Australia, disenfranchised Catholics of their rights, as on the schools question, Catholics aligned themselves with Right-wing parties to restore their just rights. So, while the general trend has been for the Church to side with the status quo, there have also been some surprising exceptions concerning issues on which the self-interest of Catholics as well as Church teaching have been jeopardised.

This especially attends bio-ethical questions, and ought also to include other issues, such as development aid, indigenous justice, refugee resettlement and even climate change, on all of which the Church has a particular teaching. My plea, therefore, is against Catholic quiescence, as in inter-bellum Germany and elsewhere, when concordats were signed ceding Catholic political rights in return for non-interference on broader social questions, and which, regrettably, were highly destructive of the common good.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 20 April 2010  

Dr Furtado says: "As to Dr Fleming’s comments, a Catholic politics, while strongly influenced by the teaching of the natural law, must also engage with the culture to which it speaks. Given that a clear hiatus exists between the claims of women and homosexual persons on the one hand, and an official papal rejection of the same on the other, I was simply alluding to an immobilism on these questions that yields little hope for immediate policy resolution or any other form of progress or dialogue." Again, I find this incomprehensible. What is "a" Catholic politics? There are Catholic politicians on right and left, but there can be no "Catholic politics" since many of the issues upon which politicians pronounce are not within the competence of the Church to determine. In any case there has always been a hiatus between Catholics and the "wisdom" of the State, and especially from the time of Nero onwards. And what "claims of women" is he taking about? Which women, which claims? And the same goes for homosexual persons. Politicians who are Catholic often find it difficult to do their duty whether on the right or the left. The destruction of the unborn in abortion is just one case of an "hiatus" between Church and state, with some Catholic politicians lining up with what is "popular". The Church's admirable social justice tradition and its moral tradition are there to inform all politicians Catholic and non-Catholic. The idea of "a Catholic politics" is simply incoherent.

Fr John Fleming | 22 April 2010  

Fr Fleming conflates the Church of purely theological terms with the individuals who make it up, invoke its name, act on its behalf for good or ill and who conspire to carry out what they think the theological Church wants them to do. But if the Church, existentially, is the people who make it up, then the only non-political Christians are those who retire to the desert or deliberately eschew civic involvement. Even such quarantining cannot help but have a "political" impact on the rest.

Moreover, even were the efforts of Catholics who lobbied or formed policy confined to bio-ethical issues or religious education etc, such things are eventually bound up with corollary issues (e.g. redirection of finances from other programs), those extra-competential issues to which Fr Fleming referred. Even his own contributions to Eureka Street could be characterised as politics and no doubt he would see them as in the interests of the Church.

In other words, I think it is disingenuous or unrealistic to say there is no such thing as Catholic politics, whilsoever there are Catholics embroiled in the debates and occasional skulduggery involved in determining the direction of public policy.

Stephen Kellett | 22 April 2010  

That the natural law underpins all Catholic morality, whether on sexuality or society, is a classic example of a privileging of ‘coherence’ in determinations of moral judgment. It follows that pastoral considerations, situation ethics and cultural questions, because of their appeal to the ‘incoherence’ of inessential factors, are dismissed as fictitious or secondary by natural lawyers.

However, history tends to favour the view that virtue flows out of incoherence and that an appeal to the popular imagination on issues of justice and peace, for instance on the issue of slavery, rather than to ideological consistency and coherence, have won the day.

Thus, if Abbott is conservative, and he clearly is on family matters, I outlined several opportunities for him to moderate his position, at least for political consistency’s, if not moral virtue’s, sake. In other words his position, to take Aly’s view, is at least ‘incoherent’.

I think, however, that this is fallacious because the natural law, which is the Church’s pre-eminent position for pronouncing on all aspects of moral behaviour, is itself dismissive of cultural considerations and alternative ontological moralities. For instance, these latter recognise the claims of gender minorities, though bioethicists reject them as incoherent and therefore unworthy.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 22 April 2010  

Tony Abbott and other former Howard government ministers who call themselves Catholics, were complicit in that government's support for the USA's Middle East aggression and its multiple human rights abuses.

Which raises the question: How do they reconcile their position on these issues, with Catholic principles?

Gordon Rowland | 22 April 2010  

I am sick and tired about all the rambling about “social justice”. Is it social justice if the Government takes taxes from hard working people to provide a free living to people unwilling to work? Is it social justice to give illegal immigrants preferential treatment instead of helping the poorest of the poorest in refugee camps around the world? Is it social justice to give lower Government pension to people who have saved up for their old age?

Too many of the so called “social justice” ideas are just a diluted potion to the Marxist ideology. True social justice provides rewards for people for their hard work and does not punish them for doing so. We have seen a massive growth of our welfare industry which has a vested interest in pushing loony left wing Marxist “social justice” ideologies. We have seen Greece and other countries ruled by these ideologies going bankrupt. What we need in Australia is fairness and incentives for people to help themselves.

I suspect that many academics try to make a name for themselves by trying to be trendy social justice knights. They often live in a closed environment and communicate only with people willing to support their own viewpoint. They don’t want to know about the massive abuse of our welfare system by large sections of our community. Most Australians want to give everyone a fair go as long people make an effort and don’t hang on the skirts of social workers and continue to find excuses.
I strongly recommend reading the book by Jared Diamond “Collapse” about how societies choose to fail or survive. I think it is essential reading to all, including left wing academics.

Beat Odermatt | 23 April 2010  

To recapitulate: I deduced from Waleed Aly’s Quarterly Essay, that there isn’t a Right and Left anymore. Giddens famously observed that postcommunist politics had shifted so far to the Right that yesterday’s Right is today’s Left. This means that Bob Santamaria, with whom Abbott is often compared, was a Left-winger, since his politics ordained an interventionist role for the state.

I accept that Santa’s was the classic Catholic social justice position and that Tony Abbott should reassess his policies if he wishes to cast himself as a conservative Catholic, while allowing that there are some difficulties with this position because Catholic Social Teaching is a wider discourse than conservative Catholics allow, being open to scriptural interpretation in human and cultural contexts.

I am sceptical of Fleming’s ‘two kingdoms’ proposition (wherein the worlds of religion and politics don’t meet) and inclined towards Kellett’s argument that politics is endemic in everything, including all theology and ecclesiology. This explains why theological conservatives tend to be political ones.

Given that we live in a democracy, I imagine that Christians, including presumably Beat Odermatt, are entitled to their views if these meet the test of love.

Incidentally the Vatican condemned the West’s Middle Eastern intervention.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 24 April 2010  

Michael, your recapitulation is very concise and clear and makes eminent sense to me.

Stephen Kellett | 24 April 2010  

I checked Odermatt’s assertions. Since I reasoned that politics cannot be contained within left and right-wing ideologies, which are inadequate concepts to explain the complexity of the global world, I proposed that Abbott’s honesty about his personal life should spill over into the public square, in which social morality also has a pressing claim.

I found that Catholic Social Teaching pays more attention to the people affected by political actions and decisions than to abstract and impersonal considerations of duties, rights, and injustice. Because rationality and free choice belong to every person, where these do not exist the Christian obligation is to ensure their restoration, for such rights are God-given and mustn’t be alienated or extinguished. Therefore the Church teaches that sin is personal as well as social.

While justified in railing against those who live off the prudence of others, the facts show that disparities between wealth and poverty, rather than taxation, have actually increased (ref. Manne & McKnight, 2010), while Greece is plainly a victim of the greed of global capital markets (ref. The Australian Business Magazine, April 2010, p.34).

Jared Diamond is a UCLA academic whose data is highly contested. I am a carer – not an academic.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 27 April 2010  

This blog should trigger much more discussion, reflecting how appalled we should be about the occlusion of religion from public life. It’s improbable, given the policies that he espouses, that Abbott is knowledgeable of, let alone influenced by Catholic Social Teaching: he now states that his religious affiliation is irrelevant to his conservatism, in respect of which his politics show no engagement with a raft of contemporary hopes, ideas, experiences and preoccupations that inform a current discourse of justice and peace.

The fault with this may well be with Catholic Social Teaching, which has been so residualised by official preoccupation with biological essentialism that it remains quarantined from many of the forums that explore cultural questions.

For instance, it has no meaningful dialogue with Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies and English Studies, which between them are the main vehicles for extending our collective consciousness of injustice, abuses of human rights, problems of empathy and sustainability and, indeed, heightened awareness of our identity and humanity.

In the Anglophone world such engagement flows from the contributions of Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall, Terry Eagleton, the Australian, Meaghan Morris, and others.

We need to revisit Gaudium et Spes!

I thank all who participate.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 01 May 2010  

One problem about this question is that there is dispute over what Catholic Social teaching ("CST") obliges. Rerum Novarum is often hailed as a watershed document but it's possible to read it as a document of its time concerned more with countering the great 19th century socialist surge than occupying the moral ground, and paying more deference than due to conservative structures.

Despite further articulation nothing really radical that questions or addresses the very logic of prevailing structures has stood out. The very description "women's studies" suggests over half the human race is still marginal. No wonder there are so many Catholics embedded in political conservatism and in status-quo politics, because they ignore perspectives and considerations requiring a wholly different vantage-point. I suggest church authorities, and consequently CST, are often ambivalent about structural injustices, partly because the church sees itself as an inviolable structure.

The litmus test for many Catholics in politics seems to hinge around abortion being classified as the greatest moral evil and the paramount necessity of protecting the individual's freedom to accumulate wealth, both of which I attribute to an overconfident belief in the primacy of the human individual in the scheme of the universe.

Stephen Kellett | 01 May 2010  

Stephen, see Scott Stephens, ABC Online Religion Editor, who has entered this debate, to confirm your view:


Stephens proposes that Abbott should take a leaf out of Cameron’s (the UK Conservative Party leader) book. Cameron is linked with Phillip Blond, who argues that recent papal encyclicals appeal to the Tory cardinal virtues of personal responsibility, social conservatism, the free market and small government, while framing them within an overarching narrative about the post-war unravelling of the moral, social and economic fabric of society.

There’s nothing vaguely Leonine about this, though it is exactly Fleming’s position. It is not Catholic social theology (because there’s nothing social about it), is built upon conservative theorising arising out of John Paul being sucked into a Reaganite view (in which his writings show he was perpetually trapped) and offers no Catholic public policy prescription, having more to do with the dated neo-Chestertonian commentary of the American conservative, George Weigel, than a critical engagement with JP II’s vociferous and unalloyed anti-Sovietism.

Catholic social theology is about social inclusion and has taken off from liberation theology to suit a poststructural/postcommunist mode. It has outstripped Catholic Social Teaching, which, under the last two papacies has sadly regressed.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 08 May 2010  

I think it fortuitous that the UK election should be in the news and am indebted to Scott Stephens of the ABC for his e-article on a theme similar to mine.

However, the problem with his analysis is that Australia's ‘left-wing Tory’ isn’t Tony Abbott but Kevin Rudd.

Secondly, Philip Blond, who is Prime Minister David Cameron's theological mentor, has views on race and immigration, the welfare state, the green economy and community politics diametrically opposed to everything Abbott stands for.

Thirdly, Stephens's assumption that because Abbott is a Catholic he is a follower and supporter of Catholic Social Teaching, is a non sequitur.

Abbott's selective, ‘cafeteria’ Catholicism is evidenced by his conservative views on sexual morality, and informs his gender politics, which, while reflecting aspects of the Catholic Church's teaching on bioethics, is categorically at odds with all of the major positions that the Church has taken in recent years on issues of justice and peace, viz. anti-war, pro-refugee, pro-Third World, the environment and pro-welfare.

I thank all who contributed.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 13 May 2010  

Stephen Kellett suggests that Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has only ever been about ameliorative measures that lend much needed legitimacy to an essentially conservative social and economic project. He obviously sets aside the option for the poor and CST’s criticism of unbridled economic liberalism.

Given that a Catholic politics of the extreme centre is also a fascist politics, it is possible to see why Catholicism failed to stem the tide of Nazism and in many cases supported it. The great sin of liberation theology was that it pointed precisely to this ameliorative/window dressing role of CST.

It follows that Cameron's approach may well be the opposite side of the same coin as Blair's Third Way - not centrist policies so much as ameliorative measures that lend much needed legitimacy to the neo-liberal project which continues despite its glaring failings, e.g. no meaningful structural change in the wake of the GFC - a sure sign that the neo-liberal project is far from dead!

Abbott is interesting precisely because of such tensions between CST and the Thatcherite philosophy that still drives the Liberal Party (“No such thing as society”). As such, he needs an encyclical to guide him through these neoliberal times.

Nick C | 16 May 2010  

To categorise Catholic Social Teaching as fascist is mistaken. Granted its social illiberalism, it is also against the market and favours Keynesian mechanisms to obviate extremities of deregulation.

Leo XIII wasn’t just Thomist but also opened up Catholicism to biblical scholarship, which, since his time, provides a richly illuminating exegetical seam throughout all the encyclicals. CST, while conservative, is hardly neoliberal.

The twin characteristics of neoliberalism are social conservatism and economic liberalism. When Tony Abbott announces himself as a social fabric conservative, there is almost nothing in this position that resonates with CST.

The onslaught on liberation theology was not unique to Catholicism but commenced with the 1978 Reith Lectures of Edward Norman, a conservative with a profound distaste for the dialectical materialist foundations of some aspects of liberation theology, which he plausibly argued were incompatible with Christianity.

While social fabric conservatism seeks to conserve societal structures, its structuralist methodology, like liberation theology as well as Marxism, is out of kilter with current poststructuralist epistemology, which is about culture and context.

Vatican II began the interrupted rapprochement with culture, which must be recommenced or become atrophied. All disciplinary knowledge and ideas, including theology, must be nourished and renewed to survive.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 23 May 2010  

Rapid developments of the last few days call for a new look at this topic. It would be good to read what a Robert Manne or a Fred Chaney might contribute instead of my puny soliloquising!

I suspect that Abbott cannot entirely be assessed through the somewhat remote filter of Catholic Social Teaching and instead, that a new prism, refracting the leadership qualities and weaknesses of the politician in his context, may be the way to go.

I surmise that events now reflecting those of the beleaguered Whitlam government, it may be useful to compare and contrast Abbott with Fraser, especially at a time when Fraser has finally resigned from the Liberal Party.

It appears that Fraser’s position post-1975 has been similar to St Paul’s conversion on the Damascene road. Having pilloried all aspects of Labor’s social libertarianism and economic profligacy, Fraser reconstructed himself as the Great White Anti-Apartheid Hope, while leaving it to Hawke, Keating and Dawkins to commence reforming Australia’s ailing economy.

Could it be that Abbott has a similar conservative finger on the essentially reactionary pulse of the Australian electorate and, once in power, is likely to follow through on the reform agenda that has stymied Rudd?

MICHAEL FURTADO | 30 May 2010  

Hello. all i read the comments are on this page. im a bit confuse why the people are against the Vatican? are people looking to compare their knowledge of the religion and rules of Bible?

ilkben | 30 May 2010  

Let’s see, Ilkben. This article is about whether there are new conservative constructions of Catholicism which legitimise Abbott’s political claims and Catholic credentials. Given that in a democracy participants are entitled, nay encouraged, to defend or contest such a proposition, one expects disagreement and vigorous discussion.

Those who support the conservative view tend broadly to state that the Church’s teaching is substantially bioethical, about personal morality and abjectly apolitical, which appears to be Abbott’s own view; while others lament the fact that the Church has not spoken out unequivocally on Abbott’s merciless attack on asylum seekers, even to the point of endorsing a racist advertisement showing that Australia is under attack from them.

Granted that the Church takes many forms – the hierarchy, the clergy, the laity, etc. – there appears to be room for a vibrant debate on the matter of who speaks with authority on such a crucial issue, especially in the run-up to an election. For instance, in the absence of a firm statement from all the bishops on this question, participants would appear to be entitled to appeal to scripture and various aspects of papal social teaching (the Vatican, if you like) to support their point of view.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 08 June 2010  

The events of the last few days have once again resurrected this topic and raise several questions.

How are Christian and other citizens of good will to negotiate a new policy minefield in which Abbott has seen Rudd off on several aspects of public policy on which Catholic Social Teaching has a great deal to say, viz.

- the role of the state, rather than the market in ordaining justice and fairness, especially for those on a low income and who rely on the public purse and revenue raising for their survival;
- the stewardship of natural goods (in this case, mining wealth) as well as of the environment;
- the treatment of refugees now that Abbott has ramped up the anti, vowed to turn back the boats and Gillard is committed to an off-shore processing search similar to Howard’s;
- the dignity of work for those 40% of the largely Catholic East Timorese, who are unemployed, many of whom were once political refugees in this country who had some appeal for the conservative side of Australian politics and whom Gillard now proposes to employ as Australia’s asylum-seeker caretakers?

Nick C | 07 July 2010  

I sympathise with your questions, Nick. The silence of the hierarchy, with the exception of Bishop Saunders, has been scandalously deafening.

I suspect that the powerful among them are focused on the school funding review, in respect of which Cardinal Pell will use his special relationship with Abbott once again to secure the positional advantage of Catholic schools over the prior claim to just treatment of asylum seekers. The opposition of the National Catholic Education Commission to the review suggests that is happening already.

Particularly worrying is that until relatively recently there has been no evidence of Catholics in the First World supporting extremist right-wing causes, especially on race, as Abbott has evidently done. Even Britain’s somewhat quaint Ann Widdicombe, a former Conservative MP, confines her Chestertonian tirades to attacks on antediluvian bigots, such as the Rev Ian Paisley.

At no time in Britain, for example, is there any evidence of Catholics on either side of politics siding with a beat-up against so-called illegal immigration. Not only is it pointless to rest the reputation of Catholics on the unprincipled and disgraceful political behaviour of Abbott, the prophetic mission of the episcopate on this matter has sadly been reduced to tatters.

MICHAEL FURTADO | 16 July 2010  

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