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Church should prioritise wider community interests over its own

  • 02 December 2021
Church and state are confronting one another right now over the federal freedom of religion bill and the Victorian anti-discrimination bill. Whenever such confrontation occurs it reveals our priorities. We define our identity by what we choose to fight for hardest.  

Education has always been one of the central elements of the Catholic Church’s interaction with the state. This time it is not about the usual school funding issues, but the right to administer internal school matters, such as choosing staff and students, in the way the church sees fit. 

The most prominent church voices include our senior leaders, Archbishops Anthony Fisher of Sydney and Peter Comensoli of Melbourne. 

These two archbishops are not only strong advocates of religious freedom but also strong opponents of same sex marriage. They ran the most vociferous aspects of the church’s recent anti-same sex marriage campaign. The origins of this freedom of religion bill were in promises made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to assuage disappointed conservative Coalition MPs after the same sex marriage plebiscite led to its legalisation.  

Four years later the two issues are inseparable in the public mind as the same sex marriage campaign of 2017 is still fresh. The church cannot escape its public record. The general community and LGBTQI+ Catholics do not trust church authorities when so-called freedom of religion and gay rights clash. Rainbow Catholics Inter/Agency for Ministry has just reiterated this point; it supports the Victorian anti-discrimination bill, while opposing the federal freedom of religion bill, which would potentially over-ride state laws. 

Anti-discrimination and freedom of religion debates reflect much broader views about faith and society. The broader conservative campaign, including some Catholic leaders, disproportionately paints modern society as anti-faith and threatening to churches. This is an inappropriate starting point for a church political intervention and puts the church in the wrong company. 

'Standing up energetically for freedom of religion rather than other more urgent issues perpetuates the community perception that the church is not only self-interested but unduly focused on sex and gender rather than being outward looking.' 

While the church interventions have been expressed in more moderate terms than those of the Prime Minister, they have still argued that the federal religious freedom legislation should ideally be even stronger. Archbishop Comensoli has expressed the seemingly benign view that all Australians should be able to participate fully in our society regardless of their religious beliefs, but he has failed to show that that