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Controversies forgotten amid 'boisterous' WYD celebrations

  • 21 July 2008
World Youth Day has now come and gone. It was as if tropical fish of every colour had briefly made the city their pond. Many thousands of young Catholics from Australia and overseas met, found connection in their faith, celebrated exuberantly, and are now returning to their smaller worlds. Thousands of families, schools and parishes around Australia offered hospitality to the young pilgrims. It was a boisterous exercise in connection at many levels.

Now we have seen the splendid and varied reality of World Youth Day, it is worth reflecting back upon the controversies that accompanied it. The principal points at issue were the support given by the State to a Church event, the laws introduced to cover the event, the media coverage, particularly of Church handling of sexual abuse, and the image of the Catholic Church conveyed by World Youth Day.

The argument that Government support for World Youth Day breached the walls that separate church and state was a furphy. In staging World Youth Day the Catholic Church was a significant secular player that contributes greatly to the economy through its schools, hospitals, institutions of social outreach and networks of volunteers.

When an economic player of that size sponsors a large international event that brings many tourists to Sydney, governments must decide whether it is prudent to contribute to the costs of the event in the expectation of larger benefits. That decision is as open to debate as it is for funding the Grand Prix.

Whether this Government commitment was properly and transparently made on the basis of public benefit is a fair question to ask. At special events governance easily becomes unaccountable.

Responsibility for the regulations introduced to protect World Youth Day rested with the State Government. These laws were rightly criticised by citizens and pruned by courts for their overbroad curb on civil liberties.

It was perhaps regrettable that many Catholics failed to see that the armour offered the Church by such regulations is a shirt of Nessus. Churches need freedom of religious expression in order to thrive. The last two Popes have insisted on it when addressing Islamic states. Laws that limit free expression on the grounds of annoyance leave churches vulnerable.

In a secularist society, for example, some groups will be annoyed by public religious symbols like crosses, and others by protests defending the right to life. In Islamic societies some will be annoyed