Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Catholics and freedom of religion


Freedom of religion, a matter of national interest still to be resolved successfully in the Federal Parliament, has yet again become a focus for the nation’s football codes. The Essendon Football Club in the Australian Football League has followed Manly in the National Rugby League and the NSW Waratahs in the Rugby Union Super League in being caught up in controversy.  

Yet again it has been the conflict between negative attitudes towards homosexuality and support for social inclusion which has become the inflammatory issue. In the Super League it was Israel Folau’s public posts calling homosexuality sinful. In the NRL it was some players refusing to wear a Pride jumper because of their cultural and religious beliefs. 

At Essendon FC it involved a controversy over its recently appointed CEO, Andrew Thorburn, formerly the National Australia Bank CEO, who resigned after just 24 hours in the job. Thorburn is the chairman of the City on the Hill group of conservative Anglican churches, whose Melbourne church, in a 2013 sermon, used extravagant language to compare the record of abortion to that of concentration camps, and condemned homosexual acts as sinful.

When asked by the Essendon board to choose between his role at the church and his new job at the football club, Thorburn chose his church governance role, for which there is no Catholic equivalent for a lay person, over football and resigned, warning of threats to freedom of religion. The club, however, framed the choice as an irreconcilable tension between the club’s inclusive values and conservative Christian values. It soon became a national issue. Among Thorburn’s supporters was the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Michael Steed, who issued a statement on behalf of the conservative legal think tank, Freedom for Faith. 

Club members and supporters played a major role on both sides. The Purple Bombers, the club’s official LGBTIQA+ supporter group, were critical of the appointment and welcomed Thorburn’s resignation, but the highest profile participants were two Catholics: the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, and the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli. Both were Essendon members. They too did not hold back and used strong language. 

Mr Andrews condemned Thorburn’s church for bigotry and hatred and expressed disappointment in Essendon’s appointment, although he indicated that he would maintain his membership.  


'The promise by the new Labor government, to legislate for freedom of religion before the end of its first term will turn out to be another big hurdle to jump.' 


Archbishop Comensoli described Essendon’s decision as ‘a chilling message to ordinary faith believers in Victoria that they can’t be trusted to exercise leadership and service in the community.’ He indicated that he would be ceasing his club membership in protest. 

Mr Andrews pushed back against his own faith leader. In his words: ‘I’m a Catholic. I send my kids to Catholic schools. My faith is important to me and guides me every day.’ Clearly just what is acceptable teaching within Australian Christianity can be debated among believers.

None of the major participants in this sorry saga are entirely without fault. Unfortunately, in this era of culture wars such controversies often feature more heat than light. Competing ideological positions are already set in stone in church and society. 

Once again, this controversy has demonstrated how it is issues with a religious-cultural component, not economic issues, which most polarize our society and are the most difficult for politics to resolve harmoniously. They defeated the efforts by the Morrison government to do so. The promise, recently repeated, by the new Labor government, to legislate for freedom of religion before the end of its first term will turn out to be another big hurdle to jump. 

Catholics should reflect upon several aspects of this debate. 

First, the Church has an appalling record in Australia in demonstrating freedom of conscience and speech within its own ranks. It allows little freedom of religious belief within the church itself. There are many well-known examples of those who have been ‘cancelled’, which are themselves a ‘chilling example’, to use Archbishop Comensoli’s terminology, to many Catholics that their own church penalises those who speak out and restricts their opportunities to exercise service and leadership. This record will be in many people’s minds when they hear the Church criticising others for restricting freedom of religion.

Secondly, the Church has not provided much space for the voices of LGBTIQA+ Catholics to be heard within the Church. They were one of the absent voices at the recent Plenary Council. Catholics demonstrated during the 2017 same sex marriage debate that many do not share the views of some of their more conservative leaders, including Archbishop Comensoli, who campaigned against recognition of same sex marriage. One useful consequence of this Essendon controversy would be an open conversation within the church about respecting the dignity of LGBTIQA+ Catholics and celebrating the contribution that they, ordained, religious and lay, make within the Church.  

Thirdly, once again the Church has found itself embroiled in culture wars in a re-run of the earlier same sex marriage campaign. We have found ourselves grouped in the public’s mind with with some of the most conservative elements in Australian Christianity. That is not where many Catholics, including some other Church leaders, want to be; but it is difficult for most Catholics in leadership roles to say so while maintaining Church unity. 





John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn

Main image: A woman carries a rosary (Omar Marques / Getty Images).

Topic tags: John Warhurst, AFL, Essendon, Freedom, Religion, Christianity



submit a comment

Existing comments

Having watched most of the recent Plenary Tracker broadcasts an enduring memory is of the devastation felt by LBGTIQA+ Catholics (and women) who long to be more deeply involved within a Church that does not seem to ‘get’ their concerns about inclusion. Was Jesus inclusive? You bet. When freedom of religion rights are perceived to be impinged then (some) Church leaders spring into public utterance whilst remaining silent about important cultural change within the Church. This is always noted by society in general. All said though Essendon Football Club handled the whole episode in an inept manner. A more robust and thoughtful approach to recruitment of leadership within the club would have viewed inclusion as paramount. The Church could follow suit.

Pam | 13 October 2022  
Show Responses

The football club has embraced this new religion based on gender ideology with the overarching value they call "inclusion". The club says we must include everyone regardless of their "gender identity".

Unfortunately, there are those of us who do not accept gender ideology and who do not have a "gender identity"; some in this category are lesbians and gay men, who now find ourselves excluded from the very movement we once helped create. Excluded.

If you are puzzled by this take on things, might I suggest you have a look at the LGB Alliance website.

Janet | 16 October 2022  

Thanks for that link Janet.

Ginger Meggs | 17 October 2022  

Thanks for your response. I guess we can argue about semantics. My take on inclusion in the Church is about ‘belonging’. I’m sorry for your feeling of exclusion.

Pam | 19 October 2022  

If its meaning hasn't already been monopolized by race and gender application, perhaps it's time for analysis (or should that be: 'deconstruction'?) of buzz words like "inclusion" and their social effects, as Janet (16/10) clearly and candidly does here. Another candidate for analysis would be "discrimination", which used primarily to be a compliment (as in: "Janet is a very discriminating person"), and is still listed in most standard dictionaries as a synonym for "discernment" - a characteristic word in Jesuit spirituality, and one often employed in the exhortations of Pope Francis.

John RD | 17 October 2022  

Thank God that there are people like John Warhurst who will tell it like it is. Conservative religious leaders should remove the logs from their own eyes before they start complaining about the specs of dust in the eyes of others. They might start by conceding that it's possible that they might not be omniscient after all.

Ginger Meggs | 13 October 2022  

Archbishop Comensoli description of the Essendon CEO decision as
“a chilling message to ordinary faith believers in Victoria that they can’t be trusted to exercise leadership and service in the community”
misrepresents the issue as a matter of religious freedom.
Religious freedom must never protect beliefs and behaviours that cause harm to vulnerable people. Archbishop Comensoli should not be seeking protection for any religious teaching that denigrates others.
My Catholic Church leaders seek legal protection for unChristian teachings, as illustrated by the Catholic Catechism’s claims contrary to science that homosexuality is ‘a disordered state’, with a ‘psychological genesis’, that homosexual acts are ‘acts of grave depravity’ and ‘intrinsically disordered’ (Catechism, n. 2357). This does not reflect the views of most Catholics and other Christians living in the real world, and is contrary to Jesus’ teaching to love one another.
Such views do grave damage to people of diverse sexuality and gender. We are better than this. The Essendon selection was poorly handled but the ultimate outcome was quite appropriate.

Peter Johnstone | 14 October 2022  

Popular culture notes. Peter Comensoli is the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, but this week he showed he doesn’t come from Melbourne. An Essendon supporter, he said that as a result of the club’s recent CEO contretemps he is now looking to support another club. Peter Comensoli comes from Sydney via Wollongong, where such club-swapping (rugby) is common. He clearly does not understand that in Melbourne (Australian Rules) supporters remain loyal to their club till death does them part. Take Daniel Andrews, for example, another Essendon supporter. The State Premier distanced himself from the club’s decision, made statements about certain moral issues, then encouraged Essendon supporters to think about becoming members and help the club out. Andrews has no intention of looking for another club; in fact, that would be an unthinkable idea.

Philip Harvey | 14 October 2022  
Show Responses

Philip DA is a law to himself. Fearing neither, like the judge in the parable. The difference here is the pestering widow is the lobby he shares an office with.
I'm from Melbourne and grew up supporting the Dees but for many years have supported the Lions. However I wouldn't follow the advice of any Bishop nor obey his decrees or suggestions or insinuations.
Australian rules has long been regarded as Victoria's religion, but we now see a sinister twist where football is religionised to further the aims of the LGBTQ+ lobby.

Francis Armstrong | 20 October 2022  

"We have found ourselves grouped in the public’s mind with with some of the most conservative elements in Australian Christianity. That is not where many Catholics, including some other Church leaders, want to be; but it is difficult for most Catholics in leadership roles to say so while maintaining Church unity."
Who exactly would it be damaging church unity if progressive leaders said stuff that made others spit the dummy and leave? What a sense of privilege some people have, to think that they are above actual debate.

Paul Smith | 14 October 2022  

Australia is a secular society, and according to the last Census, increasingly so. Medieval bigotry from whatever source has no place in that society, including in the commercial realm. With any luck, the government will put the proposed bill seeking to protect such bigotry firmly on the back burner whilst it attempts to deal with more pressing issues.

Stiggyyabass | 18 October 2022  

You can be a member of two organisations with conflicting views such as a licenced club and an anti-gambling lobby but not a leader in both. The Essendon furore boils down to this. Our church ‘leaders’ fail to grasp. Unfortunately Melbourne and Sydney cannot shake off the George Pell years and will remain in the conservative Christian ranks for years to come. Church unity has everyone focussing on the gift of the Eucharist and not having to adhere to the proclamations of men out of touch with the community and fearful of females.

Tony Re | 29 October 2022  

It would appear that it is now impossible to hold what are mainstream traditional Christian beliefs in the public sphere and not to suffer in some way. I do not think the Woke crowd are interested in either genuine free speech or freedom of religion: neither is on their Marxist agenda.

Edward Fido | 11 November 2022