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Existential church-state hospital crisis


The proposal by the ACT government to compulsorily acquire Calvary Public Hospital in Canberra, which the government insists has nothing to do with religious beliefs, is an evolving story with a long history. It has already blown up into a full-scale national church-state crisis.

The Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, behaving as if this is a new issue, has embarked upon a furious attack on the government. He has launched an old-style no holds barred Catholic campaign using every political tool at his disposal including prayer vigils, parish Masses, a petition, and media attacks. He has offered to talk to the government, but this may be a little late given his previous extreme denunciations of it using exaggerated language about dictatorships. 

There are three main strands to this campaign. Taking exception to the abrupt and non-transparent decision; attacking the performance of the ACT government in hospital management and health services delivery generally; and alleging that the action is an anti-religion intervention which threatens the wider community, including all faith-based services. The first strand is understandable; the second may resonate within the ACT community and hits back hard against the government; the third, though, while a common tactic in parliamentary politics, is misleading and baseless. Elements of the national Church have emphasised this third strand, including the Archbishop of Sydney. Most egregiously the National Catholic Education Commission has taken the archbishop’s bait by claiming that Catholic education assets are threatened nation-wide.  

Before rushing to the barricades, as the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn has done, the Catholic community in Australia should reflect on the situation, regardless of the temptations of wider national and local political debate. The federal Opposition has tried to link it to the politics of freedom of religion and to embroil it in the rhetoric of culture wars. National conservative figures, like former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, are keen to pour fuel on the fire, while the conservative lobby, the Australian Christian Lobby, staged a protest rally outside the Legislative Assembly. 

The Church meanwhile has its own interests and integrity to protect and should consider both the broader international and national context and the local circumstances before further deliberate escalation. 

The broader question is the increasingly regular confrontations between the church and the state around both the world and the nation. These cannot all be put down to narrow-minded, bigoted, secular governments threatening the freedom of religion of churches and faith communities. There are deeper issues at stake. 

As society moves in one direction and the church in another on matters like abortion, euthanasia, and same sex marriage, for instance, church-state confrontations over the delivery of hugely expensive publicly funded services by Catholic agencies are inevitable and likely to become more frequent. Democratically elected governments naturally respond to wider public concerns in making their decisions.  


'We have every right to celebrate and stand firm on our principles, but one consequence is that increasingly the community will question our previously ‘unquestioned’ right to be funded to run public facilities like hospitals.'


The official Catholic position on abortion and euthanasia is being put strongly within the ACT by the archbishop precisely as the hospital crisis emerges. Bluntly, the church stands defiant and will not cooperate in any way with the state. This is understandable but may have unavoidable consequences. 

One of the more unusual features of this crisis is that the church side is being led loudly by the archbishop and the diocesan church despite him having no formal role in owning or governing Calvary ‘Catholic’ Hospital. This is no mere detail. The historical division between the diocesan church and religious orders and congregations remains and should be respected. Calvary, the contractual ‘owner’ of the hospital is the modern embodiment of the Little Company of Mary and has nothing formally to do with the local diocesan church leaders. Yet the archbishop has assumed leadership, running a public campaign, while Calvary and the government resume their own negotiations. 

It is as if this is an old-fashioned existential crisis for the church that the episcopal leadership is confident of handling in a traditional way. This is about church assets, identity, and its place in the world, which must be defended at all costs.  

The intensity of this campaign is in stark contrast to the hierarchy’s approach to other pressing matters, such as parish decline, the disappearance of many religious orders, and the demands for reform by lay Catholics. Other matters like implementing the decrees of the Plenary Council or standing up for refugees and asylum seekers or campaigning for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament deserve the same urgency. Instead, the archbishop’s campaign has charged ahead, apparently leaving the national Calvary board and Catholic Heath Australia in its wake.  

There is also a particular Canberra context that non-Canberrans should understand before they jump on board and see this case as confirmation that a rabidly secular government, driven by religious bigotry, is out to get ‘us’. One aspect of this, which the current campaign refuses to even acknowledge, is the long and convoluted history of ACT government efforts to buy Calvary hospital, which culminated 13 years ago with an agreed sale being vetoed by the Vatican behind closed doors. 

Despite once being a very Catholic city-state, based on a disproportionate number of Catholics in the Commonwealth public service, Canberra is now a more secular jurisdiction than any other in Australia. The recent Census confirmed a higher proportion of non-religious citizens than anywhere else.  Many in the local community are sensitive to overt ‘religious’ influence and calling for the ACT government to be put in its place by national governments is counterproductive. 

Much of what the church stands for has clearly suffered political rejection in the ACT recently, from the high vote for same sex marriage in 2017 to the unseating of its ‘favourite son’, Liberal Senator Zed Seselja, by David Pocock in 2022. Notably Pocock stands for ACT rights and vigorous representation of the views of the ACT community, including these contested ‘Catholic’ issues. 

Canberra is growing fast, earning a third federal seat recently. Calvary is one of only two major public hospitals. Canberra Public Hospital is on the South side and Calvary Public Hospital on the North side.  

This means the balance between public and private hospitals in Canberra is not the same as in Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane. It also means greater public attention to the services not offered on principle, like abortion and euthanasia, by Catholic hospitals like Calvary. 

The ACT government has handled the acquisition badly. It has seemingly been abrupt and lacking in transparency. It should have consulted more widely, including with staff, and its mistakes and its misjudgments should not be excused. 

Unfortunately, however, these failings are familiar within the church too. The church itself has no credibility on matters of accountability and transparency. There was none when the Vatican, at the instigation of Australian bishops, over-ruled the previous agreement between the government and the Calvary board on the sale of the hospital. This complex history which needs to open up for wide community discussion. 

Just where all this ends up no one yet knows. It is possible that the forces arrayed by the archbishop against the government will prevail, though the 21-year-old ACT Labor-Green government is comfortably ensconced against a weak opposition. Maybe the church campaign will cause the government to retreat or even bring it down at the next election. 

The church might win this battle, but ‘we’ will not win the war. The old days are gone, the church is much weaker, and Australia, led by its young people, is becoming much more secular. The gap between the two is growing. We have every right to celebrate and stand firm on our principles, but one consequence is that increasingly the community will question our previously ‘unquestioned’ right to be funded to run public facilities like hospitals.  




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University in Canberra. 

Main image: Calvary Public Hospital, Bruce. (Calvary Hospital)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Calvary, Hospital, ACT, Public Services, Church



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Existing comments

Thanks John for an excellent and balanced analysis. You write: ‘ This is about church assets, identity, and its place in the world, which must be defended at all costs.’ Sadly, this is how the Catholic Church responded to its victims of child sex abuse too. The Catholic Church is ironically deaf to its own theological teachings.

Carol | 01 June 2023  

If only this explanation had been available some weeks ago. News stories covering this issue were paywalled, and I searched in vain for any backstory; it seemed to me an unexplained and sudden resumption of property held in good faith by what I thought to be a sound hospital system.
At least it is a case of Very Bad National Communication on the part of the ACT Govt.
Thank you for your explanation.

Sandy | 01 June 2023  

It's not "misleading and baseless" to allege the ACT government's proposed compulsory acquisition of Calvary Hospital is an "anti-religion intervention."
In 2010, the reason given for an attempted takeover was providing "a full suite of fertility services." A 2022 ACT inquiry into abortion services accused Calvary of restricting "medical services" "due to an overriding religious ethos."
The Catholic Church stands against a virtual sacrament of the far-Left, abortion.
In the USA, the Little Sisters of the Poor are pursued over a contraceptive mandate. Recently the government demanded St Francis Catholic Hospital in Tulsa put out its sanctuary candle or be stripped of all Medicare and Medicaid funding.
Adreea Piccioti-Bayer of the Catholic University noted: "The prosecution of Catholic pro-lifers, FBI witch hunts of attendees of TLM, refusal to protect Catholic Supreme Court justices from grotesque intimidation in front of their homes, pressuring Catholic hospitals to kowtow to absurd demands of gender ideology, and pulling priestly care from the nation's top military hospital (done in Holy Week) are just the tip of the iceberg."
Mary Eberstadt correctly wrote: "The real religious divide is between Catholics who want powerful secular trends to influence and transform the Church, and Catholics who do not."

Ross Howard | 02 June 2023  

This comment by John is very welcomed. I was particularly interested in the information that the Calvary board 13 years ago had agreed to 'sell' the hospital to the government and there had been an unpublicised Vatican veto to block this- perhaps for motives other than community health needs, which to my mind is the original motivation for health for those less advantaged.

Marie Bourke | 02 June 2023  

What an extraordinary tale. We are in professor Warhurst’s debt for shining light on what to people outside Canberra is confusing. I am left wondering why,if the owners of the hospital were previously prepared to sell, the Vatican stopped what seemed to be a normal commercial transaction. It doesn’t sit well for the present opponents to complain about lack of transparency and accountability.Further, to complain about dictatorial behaviour is just not persuasive when an institution on the other side of the world stops a transaction that in which it has no financial interest without condescending to offer any reason for its conduct. If there were some moral or religious reason for the Vatican’s refusal to allow the sale, that surely is only the beginning of the discussion as the hospital is apparently publicly funded to provide its services.

JL Trew | 02 June 2023  

I do not see your analysis as balanced. I read it as a luke-warm attempt to defend Catholic tradition and teaching, yet at the same time, you suggest 'the old days have gone' that we can't maintain our Catholic/Christian stance for too long, as Australia becomes increasingly more secular; our days are numbered.

John, should we just cave-in and run away from the fight?
Regrettably, with Catholics such as yourself within, we don't need enemies. I endorse Ross Howard's comment.


Therese van Kints | 02 June 2023  
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With respect I beg to disagree with you and Ross. As John has commented the issue is not one for the Archbishop to intervene in a a it is a matter for the Trustees of the Little Company of Mary and the A.C.T Government to deal with.
I suggest there is no political agenda rather a financial issue around the takeover. The hospital is basically a public hospital financed almost entirely from government, ie; tax payer's money. The hospital is religious in name only since the staff are laypeople,not the Sisters (which is very sad) . I certainly don't see this as an attempt to silence the Church on moral or ethical issues. Our Catholic Education System is not remotely under threat even though government funding keeps it viable. This is not an issue for the Archbishop.

Gavin O'Brien | 03 June 2023  

The independence enjoyed by religious orders to manage their own affairs presupposes their foundational affiliation with the Church; their autonomy is not absolute, but rather, related to broader context and considerations of the Church's universal mission, an integral part of which is to uphold teachings and practices that are grounded in Christ's Gospel received by means the Scriptures and the Apostolic tradition. State-approved abortion and euthanasia, available in public health institutions but not in Catholic hospitals, are not consistent with these sources and the God-given dignity of life they protect.

John RD | 03 June 2023  

Someone seeking an abortion does not go to Woolworths or Coles. They should know by now that they don't go to a Catholic hospital either. This is nothing more than an economic based, secular attack on Christianity in this godless society, typified by the "woke" lefties in government in Canberra. Commentators, particularly if Catholics, cannot and should not support it.

John Frawley | 05 June 2023  
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John Frawley, if a Catholic Hospital were simply providing private services in the market place, you woolly/Coles analogy might fly, but Calvary is providing public services on contract to the government. That complicates matters if it does not fit adequately with the government's overall public health services and health planning. Has Calvary considered going private?

Peter Johnstone | 11 June 2023  

Peter, there is a private hospital on the site - Calvary Bruce Private Hospital - providing excellent care and, importantly, a new facility. I have joined in the protests at the ACT government’s heavy-handed approach to this issue. To me, this is not primarily about healthcare which is already being well provided but an encroachment on religious liberty. It is paving the way for totalitarianism.

Pam | 18 June 2023  

I must confess, as a Queenslander, not to have known the step-by-step history of the trouble over the threatened resumption of the Calvary Public Hospital, but, as an Australian who was brought up Catholic, it has overtones for me. Perhaps, when they made the decision at the Vatican not to allow the board to proceed with the sale, they bore in mind what was already happening in Europe under wokeist influence? What might happen next after abortion and supposedly 'voluntary' euthanasia in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands? The ugly spectre of irreversible transgender treatment on minors raises its ugly head. This last issue is highly contentious and has caused serious regrets from those subject to it. I have only seen one clip of Christopher Prowse speaking on the issue of the proposed hospital takeover. To me he seemed sane and balanced and spoke well. Anthony Fisher also seemed quite moderate on the issue. Wokeist influence - which has its origins in Marxist Nihilism - is a real threat to the civil and religious liberties we in this country have taken for granted for so long. My advice on this issue is twofold: 'Be very, very afraid and resist.'

Edward Fido | 05 June 2023  

In the end, John's argument seems to be that it is just 'old-fashioned' for the Church to run a hospital. And that having hospitals owned by governments is 'modern'. Historically, all Australia's major hospitals in the 19th century were non-government institutions, some mutual, some charitable. Governments are late-comers to the hospital business. At what point did this become out-dated and warrant 'acquisition' by a government? In what sense are governments more inclusive or representative of their people than other institutions with long-standing community service? Yes, fewer Australians are religious today. But the proportion of Australians who have faith in their governments is even less. Dramatically less, in fact, than any other institution, according to every survey we have available.

Vern Hughes | 05 June 2023  

Pro-life positions are safeguarded by Catholic hospitals, which historically exist in many countries. That such hospitals, like Catholic schools and other common good facilities should, first and foremost, be the priority of the Church, has resulted in close historical collaboration between Church & state.

Since the bill for them cannot be met by the Church but relies on historical collaboration between Church and state that is under external attack at a time when public revenues are falling and healthcare has become the prerogative of the rich, there is a case for the secular pluralist state AND the Catholic Church to soften attitudes on both sides to the proposed Calvary takeover.

John Warhurst's revelation of the involvement of the NCEC in the matter should cause the latter to bow its head in shame. When, years ago, the Whitlam government proposed a model for the fully-funded integration of Catholic schools into the public sector, as in NZ & elsewhere (where they happily co-exist with state schools: see my doctoral research, UQ, 2001), it rejected the proposal.

The Catholic Church should urgently review ALL its decisions to ensure CONSISTENCY across external AND internal domains. Only then will its teaching on JUSTICE be proclaimed!

Michael Furtado | 05 June 2023  
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Very sad that NCEC's comment in response to a media inquiry has not been accurately represented by John Warhurst. Insulting to see use of emotive language such as 'taken the bait'. Expect better from John.

Jacinta Collins | 07 June 2023  

What a defensive response without any attempt to provide the 'accurate' version of the NCEC's media comment.

Peter Johnstone | 10 June 2023  

Surely it’s reasonable to ask why the Church - any church - should be running a public hospital with government funds with mostly secular staff in a relatively wealthy city in a first world country with a well established health system when it could be redirecting its resources towards the service of the poor and marginalised in places where they are not being served. Isn't this what Pope Francis has urged?. That, after all, is what the sisters who founded charitable health care facilities were about when they came here in the nineteenth century. They didn't come to provide a comfortable alternative for the well off. Caroline Chisholm wasn't focused on finding situations for the full-fare- paying gentlewomen who arrived in NSW in the 1840s. Nor did she confine her activities to the comfort of Sydney - she travelled rough with those whom she was helping to the back blocks until they were safely placed.

Ginger Meggs | 08 June 2023  

I wish to register my appreciation to ES for its coverage of complex issues of Church and State that rarely get a hearing in the narrow and often biased purview of the Catholic press.

Paid to garner support for causes that rarely get a hearing in the secular domain, the latter fall easy prey to conservative forces in our society that have used the Catholic vote over many generations to advance an agenda that would reduce the influence of the state to nothing more than a minimalist disburser of public revenue.

The complexities of the economic cycle, as well as of health-care provision in this instance, are not well-appreciated by Catholic institutions, as a result of which most high quality Catholic hospitals and other health-care providers are firmly and prominently located in the private sector, with access to them available largely on a fee-for-service basis.

A consequence of this is that the poor are largely forced into the public health sector, which as a result is forced to invest its limited resources in very large hospitals.

It doesn't help also that some of those who affect to speak for Catholics should employ policy-illiterate 'street-talk' to denigrate Professor Warhurst's policy skills.

Michael Furtado | 12 June 2023  

John Warhurst's article has added prescience from another perspective. The Pope's shift towards synodal government of the Church is a clear sign that the internal self-governing mechanisms that Catholicism has relied upon are, in light of the sex abuse scandal, inadequate mechanisms for regulating such behaviours.

Humanity itself has evolved better mechanisms for dealing with such matters, such as the separation of powers, consultation at all levels through election, and accountability for decision-making. Left to its own devices, humanity is shown by history, no matter how divinely inspired, to be incapable of such complex decision-making and abiding by the rules, as the ongoing struggle to determine synodal structures still shows in order to be effective.

Catholic institutions have globally conceded their inadequacy to deal at the highest levels of administrative structure with the complex pressures exerted upon them to manage their decision-making processes successfully. Part of the reason for this is that senior appointees to high ecclesiastical office are selected from above rather than through merit-based criteria. It has to be accordingly asked how Calvary manages in this regard.

Some here have acknowledged that democracy spells a threat to the administration of our Church, but history has repeatedly shown otherwise.

Michael Furtado | 17 June 2023  


"I will give no deadly drug [read euthanise] nor perform any operation for a criminal purpose [read perform abortion] even if solicited nor will I suggest any such counsel. With purity and holiness I will pass my life and practise my art".

Hippocrates was a pagan born nearly half a millennium before Jesus of Nazareth. Amongst his beliefs was that a child in a woman's womb was human and alive and did not deserve to die for the convenience of others. He was correct and not deluded like many present day politicians and their apologists.

John Frawley | 19 June 2023  
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John Frawley is undoubtedly right about the Hippocratic Oath, which is grievously offended against by those who perform abortions other than for reasons of saving the physical life of a pregnant mother. I grieve with him for the offence against human rights that abortion to enshrine a 'right to choose' constitutes.

It tragically happens that, while as a Catholic I unreservedly oppose termination as a matter of choice, my presence in the public square reminds me that the matter, having been widely debated in the developed world over many recent decades, the tragic waste of human life is by now irretrievably settled and will only return to the public forum once a reaction sets in about not just the scandal that it constitutes in a culture that equates human life as being on a par with that of an animal, but also the damage that it does to women who undergo terminations.

For that to happen, Catholics are called to proclaim the same levels of opprobrium in relation to our treatment of ALL human life post-partum. It is a profound tragedy that the global Catholic community is so ideologically- divided that this tragedy became the casualty of our selective morality.

Michael Furtado | 20 June 2023  

As someone not qualified in medicine nor widely read in the classics, I hesitate to question you John on attitudes to abortion in Ancient Greece or on Hippocrates' precise position, but my understanding is that there was a range of views among philosophers and physicians of the time and that the corpus of writings usually attributed to Hippocrates contains no explicit statement of his belief for or against abortion per se. I stand ready to be corrected if I've got that wrong.

Ginger Meggs | 20 June 2023  

You are correct, Ginger, in stating that not all in the ancient world supported the anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia stance embodied in Hippocrates' teachings to those doctors who came to him from around the Mediterranean littorals and after his death to learn from his disciples. However, he was talking about euthanasia and abortion in his covenant for the care of Humanity.
Abortion came to be understood as contrary to the ideal of the purpose of surgery when it became recognised that life in the womb was human and alive and that life did not begin with birth but at implantation in the wound. Be that as it may, in civilised society, destruction of life in the womb was equated with the unnecessary surgery referred to in that section of the oath. Prior to that recognition, surgery such as trephining, designed to release evil spirits from withing the skull by drilling holes in it with virtually universal death as a result was more in line with Hippocrates' knowledge and appreciation of bad surgery which should not be practised. The great tragedy is that women were given a very successful means of avoiding pregnancy with the advent of the pill and came to accept abortion as an alternative for their failure to prevent pregnancy. Norma McCorvey, the famed Roe of Roe v Wade which gave the world abortion on demand, worked in one of the new legal abortion clinics after her court experience, saw abortions performed for the first time, resigned, became a Christian, then a Catholic and a life long opponent of America's abortion laws.

John Frawley | 21 June 2023  
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Thanks for the background John.

Ginger Meggs | 24 June 2023  

In the 1980s the NSW Labour government closed down the Catholic Matar Hospital in North Sydney and the Health Minister was Laurie Bereton a conservative Catholic. The government moved the money over to the Western Suburbs Hospitals for example Westmead Hospital and the Catholic church protested to no avail

stuart lawrence | 22 June 2023  

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