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No room for culture warriors in Canberra or the Vatican


In 1987, Tony Abbott had just concluded another disappointing chapter in his life. In an essay for The Bulletin, he talked about his time in the seminary at St Patrick's College, and how his dreams of a priestly life were frustrated thanks to the environment he discovered in the Catholic Church at the time.

Tony Abbott's 1987 essay in the Bulletin'On questions such as the meaning and significance of Christ, sexual ethics and social justice issues, most major theologians seemed to be at war with the Vatican,' he wrote.

This contrasted with his own faith, which was forged at Oxford University by 'the need to defend Catholicism in a hostile environment'. The 'softer Catholicism' he encountered at the seminary wasn't what he believed the world needed.

'Looking back, it seems I was seeking a spiritual and human excellence to which the Church is no longer sure she aspires. My feeble attempts to recall her to her duty — as I saw it — betrayed a fathomless disappointment at the collapse of a cherished ideal. The same sense of boundless human potential, of man soaring to God's right hand, which led me towards the priesthood led me away in the end.'

September 2015 marked the end of another chapter in Abbott's life, when he was deposed as prime minister of Australia. While his political life might not have exactly paralleled his seminary life, the disappointment at the 'collapse of a cherished ideal' has been realised again.

There are many in the Catholic Church who would echo Abbott's feelings on the dangers a theological environment 'at war with itself' presents to its moral authority. Others might look wistfully back at those days, and wonder where all that discussion and debate went under more recent religious leaders in Australia and overseas.

Similarly, there are many conservative politicians and members of the press who look at the current political commentary — particularly on Twitter — and wonder what a government can accomplish in such a conflict-riven environment. Then, again, others believe that — like the Catholic Church — our political parties need to adapt to a different era in public discourse; one marked by discussion rather than authority.

When he stood to challenge Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull made it clear what this new approach would involve for politicians. Interestingly, his words might also apply to the Catholic Church. We need 'a style of leadership that respects the people's intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it', he said.

'We need advocacy, not slogans. We need an open government ... that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues ... and of course, further afield.'

The approach of the culture warrior — someone who holds fast to their beliefs and approaches in the face of any and all opposition — is no longer practical in a society that is not only much more culturally diverse, but which is far more specialised and educated than any generation before it.

In a globalised and connected world, where ideas and information move freely, a politician or religious leader can no longer rely on the authority of their position to make people believe them. Persuasion and dialogue, and openness to change, are becoming essential characteristics of leaders in our time.

This changing environment is particularly important this week, as Catholic Church leaders meet in Rome for the Synod on the Family. There are many who have gone to Rome in the mode of the culture warrior — determined to hold fast to the beliefs of the Catholic Church in the face of those who might seek to question or change it, seeing enemies of the church around them.

Not surprisingly, Cardinal George Pell — described by Abbott as a 'fine human being and a great churchman' — is among those pushing back against the dialogue at the synod. He is reportedly one of 13 cardinals who have expressed concerns to the Pope about the ten-person special commission appointed to oversee the final document.

The belief of conservatives is that the people appointed by Pope Francis will not be sufficiently robust in defending the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Francis responded the next day, warning the bishops against giving in to the 'hermeneutic of conspiracy', and instead asking them to engage in 'a profound discernment to seek to understand how the Lord wants his Church [to be]'. He is urging them to be open to the discussions and where they might go, rather than come in already preparing for a fight.

These are fascinating times in politics and in the Catholic Church, where dialogue and openness are coming into conflict with authority and identity. Both approaches to leadership must, inevitably, lead to decision and action.

However the success of both Francis and Turnbull in recent times suggests that perhaps the best way to inspire people involves respecting their ability to discern for themselves the best path to spiritual and human excellence. Cherished ideals that can't withstand a process of discussion and discernment are probably not worth holding onto anyway.

Michael McVeighMichael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics magazine and senior editor at Jesuit Communications.

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Pope Francis, Cardinal George Pell



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Existing comments

An excellent article. I think Sandro Magister was acting quite maliciously when he published the letter from the 13 Cardinals to the Pope. Francis responded quite correctly and with proper authority. He is perfectly orthodox, and, although he has a consultative approach, I think there is no chance he will do anything in the least bit doctrinally suspect. I think there are many who fear, consciously or unconsciously, that this Synod will have the sort of unfortunate spin-offs they associate with the Second Vatican Council. They are labouring under a misapprehension. The Pope will not allow that to happen. 'Culture Wars', as you say, are something of the past, as is the combative approach of that era. Pope Francis is, in my opinion, the best person to bring back lost and disenchanted Catholics to the Church. When you look at the declining numbers of practising Catholics in the West you realise something needs to be done.

Edward Fido | 14 October 2015  

Pope Francis reached out and appointed the octogenarian Cardinal Daneels to the Synod on the Family despite the fact that 76 year-old Cardinal Tong Hon of Hong Kong, who wanted to attend the Synod, said he was told by a Vatican representative that the Vatican "does not want to make any exceptions" regarding age.

HH | 14 October 2015  

I find the Michael's reference "culture warriors " to be a meaningless term of abuse which progressives often apply to conservatives who challenge their views. Michael in his July article praised Adam Goodes 'outspokenness'. Michael did not see someone who makes 'spear throwing gestures' as a cultural warrior .

James Grover | 15 October 2015  

Poor old Tony, and in a way pro old Pell. They are both street-fighting ideologues who see things in pugilistic black and white terms, and only good or bad. Where would they be at the moment, if they happened to be born Muslim? Neither were healthy leaders of the Australian community.

Eugene | 15 October 2015  

Any rigidity will ensure pushback of some sort. Just look at 2 year old tantrums ... or teenage rebelliousness! Holding firm is not the same as insistent rigidity (just look at a flower bud unfolding). A spirit of 'life' requires movement of some sort that fills up and empties out as part of its cycle, without compromising its DNA. Out of blended families I see a maturity in young people that is able to negotiate difference and diversity in ways that an older generation struggles with. Let's pray that the 'spirit of life' flourishes at the Synod on the Family ...

mary tehan | 15 October 2015  

On the contrary, James Grover, if the term "culture warrior" is a term of abuse, to which you clearly take exception, it is hardly "meaningless". Indeed, it is a very pertinent term: there is truly a war over culture, and Tony Abbott (and Cardinal Pell) are engaged in it. Their preferred culture or their opponents'?

SMK | 15 October 2015  

Mao said that all power comes out of the barrel of a gun. That's a useful reductionism. Purchase, inherit, steal or extort the privilege of using a gun and its corresponding power is yours. The analogous reductionism in the Catholic Church is whether we are going to purchase, inherit, steal or extort the privilege of saying who can bind or loose God to reckon that someone who is receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is, when, at least, objectively perceived, in a state of grace. Isn't that what all this boils down to: am I while practising my current circumstances in a state of grace and fit to receive Holy Communion? So, in the matters to be discussed by the Synod, what's infallible and can't be changed and what's free to be developed further?

Roy Chen Yee | 16 October 2015  

In a recent article in ES by John Warhurst about David Marr's recent QE on Bill Shorten, he notes that, in Marr's opinion, Shorten's Jesuit education left Shorten 'with an 'undogmatic faith' and important business connections of the type a GPS school can provide'. Perhaps the explanation for Abbott's commitment to 'cultural wars' is that his Jesuit (and later) education left him with the dogma, in theology (and later economics, law and politics) but not the nuanced understanding of how the dogma was developed or how it could be applied

Ginger Meggs | 17 October 2015  

I silly me! I had to read the Sydney Morning Herald to fill in the gaps and realise what this is all about and why I'm missing something! It was the Pell and co cardinals who leaked the letter to the journalists knowing he would do his job and publish it! But they obviously don't want to give the impression that they are trying to undermine the pope! So blame the journalist of course!

AURELIUS | 17 October 2015  

"There are many in the Catholic Church who would echo Abbott's feelings on the dangers a theological environment 'at war with itself' presents to its moral authority." I find it a little sad that there are people who see theologies of compassion, liberation and acceptance as being a threat to the Church's "moral authority." Are they blind to the evils of institutionalised paedophilia? Are they blind to the antisemitism that has had varying levels of support from the Church? It strikes me that where the Church has moral authority at all at the moment is precisely in its condemnation of unrestrained capitalism, its environmental concern, and its concern for social justice.

DeC | 24 November 2015  

It is difficult to know what you and your magazine stand for. Perhaps it is yet to unfold.Or is it in perpetual 'maybe'.

mike lawson | 07 December 2015