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No room for culture warriors in Canberra or the Vatican

  • 15 October 2015

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.

'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