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PM Morrison and 'split personality' Church



Many Catholic leaders and agencies would have shared the general expectation of a change of government and made transitional plans. Be that as it may the new government will be faced by a range of new faces leading national Catholic agencies and groups.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows Scott Morrison with various angels on his shoulder vying for attention.Three newcomers have been announced and a fourth vacancy has recently appeared. The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC), Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) and the National Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies) have new chief executives, and Caritas Australia may do so before the end of the year after Paul O'Callaghan stepped down in mid-May. Two of these new appointees are former long-serving federal Labor MPs, and the third has an extensive church agency background.

NCEC is now being led by former Victorian senator Jacinta Collins, who announced her resignation from Parliament in February. After a lengthy trade union background Collins served as a senator for most of the period from 1995 onwards, was a parliamentary secretary for school education in the Gillard government and briefly minister for mental health and a Cabinet minister in the second Rudd government. NCEC has had several executive directors recently during which time the Catholic education sector played a prominent role in education politics, including supporting Labor's proposals at the mid-2018 by-elections which damaged Malcolm Turnbull.

The new CSSA head from July, replacing an outstanding national advocate in Fr Frank Brennan SJ, is Dr Ursula Stephens, one of Collins' former senate colleagues. Stephens was a New South Wales senator from 2001-2013 and parliamentary secretary for social inclusion and the voluntary sector, 2007-2010, in the first Rudd government. Since then she has twice been an unsuccessful Labor candidate for the seat of Goulburn in NSW state elections, most recently earlier this year. She was a teacher, small business owner and public servant prior to entering Parliament.

The new national voice for Vinnies, Toby O'Connor, was appointed in March. His brief is to advocate for Vinnies' aim of a fairer Australia. He himself was a former national director of CSSA and has had 35 years working in the social services sector, much of it for the church, including as deputy to Monsignor David Cappo at CSSA during the Hawke-Keating years. He replaced Dr John Falzon, also a well-known and powerful voice against injustice, who resigned pre-election to unsuccessfully attempt to win Labor pre-selection for the seat of Canberra in the ACT.

The work of church advocates means supporting the government on some issues, but strongly criticising it on others. That is the case whichever major party holds office. The church has something in common with both sides of politics because the Catholic community has a split political personality. Its range of concerns is so broad that they are addressed in various ways by different political parties. It wants to make an impact on government, but it is always highly unlikely that it can have it all in terms of policy because the church is just one voice among many.

After this most recent election some Catholics would have been ecstatic and others in despair, mirroring the response of the larger community. Catholic voters would have supported each of the major options and minor parties as well, showing how varied Catholic opinions and interests are. A majority of church-going Catholics probably voted for the Coalition, reflecting the general inclination of church-going Christians to be politically conservative, but Catholics as a whole probably split down the middle and may even have tilted towards Labor and the Greens.




On the one hand the Coalition, led by a church-going prime minister and containing prominent Catholic MPs, may have been more attractive to those Catholics concerned about freedom of religion and the place of the church in the public square, as well as the more general matters of safe hands for economic management, job creation and reward for aspiration and entrepreneurship.

Many other Catholics were attracted by the promise of action on climate change, greater support for foreign aid and medical support through evacuation to the Australian mainland for asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. Labor's promise of greater social spending on health and increasing the wages of child-care workers would have been attractive too, together with the promise of a government enquiry into the low level of unemployment benefits.

All church sectors must engage with the government of the day for the common good. These three new advocates, each well qualified in terms of Catholic principles and personal background and experience, have big shoes to fill in speaking out for traditional church positions. They arrive at a time of great political uncertainty about matters of justice and nagging doubts about the continued ability of the church to maintain its central place in the great public debates.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He holds advisory positions at both Caritas Australia and Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic Church, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

Whilst the Catholic Church may well have the widest spread of political opinions, the same applies across Christianity as a whole. What angers me most is that progressive Christians seem to have allowed the word "Christianity" to be hi-jacked by fundamentalist conservatives. Morrison's Christianity has nothing in common with what I learned in Methodist Sunday School.

Anne McMenamin | 03 June 2019  

“The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC), Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) and the National Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies)….” Scriptural canon instructs us that Man cannot live by bread alone but needs e-v-e-r-y word from the mouth of God. With the exception of the NCEC, the missions of the named Catholic organisations are to advocate only on issues of ‘bread’ - fine as it goes, but where are the official Catholic organisations briefed to protect the expression of Christian truth from suppression? As for the NCEC, yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph tells us that a Catholic girls school in Brisbane is instructing its students to make the Sign of the Cross with “In the name of the Creator, Jesus and the Holy Spirit” in the service of gender-neutrality. If it is the purpose of CSSA and SVdP to persuade the government that it has a role to do more for ‘bread’, can it not be a purpose of a national Catholic organisation to persuade the government that it has a role to do more for ‘spirit’, an organisation led (if miracles still happen) by some retired ALP apparatchik?

roy chen yee | 03 June 2019  

Roy, surely it's the responsibility Catholic Education to deliver the sort of doctrinal integrity you seek?

John RD | 03 June 2019  

Its not the religion of the powerful that matters its their philosophy. Unfortunately the two don't always walk hand in hand.

john frawley | 03 June 2019  

The election did not resolve the school funding issue. Nor would a Labor victory have done so. The Catholic education authorities still have a task ahead of them. In much of the OECD, faith-based schools are largely publicly funded, more generously than in Australia in places like New Zealand and Finland for example. Finland funds non-government schools at $US9266 per student (OECD Education at a Glance 2015, Table B3.3), but they may not charge fees. I can find no other country with the Coalition government’s funding model that deliberately punishes low-fee schools. It is so bizarre that the poorest child attending a non-government school which has another student with an unemployed PhD-holder as a neighbour will have his or her funding simultaneously increased because the other student’s neighbour is unemployed and reduced because that neighbour has a PhD. The move to basing funding on parental income makes it less bizarre but does not change the underlying injustice. The model forces non-government schools to put their fees up and drive poorer students out of them into government ones, making social stratification in education worse. We are waiting for a figure to take leadership and put forward a bold new plan.

Chris Curtis | 03 June 2019  

Always educational & edifying to read an article by Professor Emeritus John Warhurst. I have however been disappointed by the level of political savvy displayed in the Catholic media with regard to the recent federal election. Nothing to my mind displays this naivety more than talk about the Catholic Vote. Here is an example taken from an article in The Catholic Weekly of 2 June, 2019, under the headline, “Catholic voters are a disgrace”. The author wrote: “To our shame, the Catholic vote is only distinguishable from the non-Catholic-but-otherwise-religious vote in that we are less committed to the sanctity of human life than they.” There are so many flaws in this declaration I dare not even begin to enumerate them. Let me just ask this. How do we know what part “commitment to the sanctity of human life” played in any elector’s choosing decisively for one candidate rather than another? Nominal Catholics might form 25% of the Australian population, but of them maybe 12% practise their Faith. For me The Catholic Vote is a myth.

Uncle Pat | 04 June 2019  

Interesting you raised the matter of what appears to be a bizarre twist to the traditional Trinitarian formula taught at a well known Catholic girls' school in Brisbane, Roy. Like John RD, my first thought was that this should be dealt with within the Catholic educational system, but then again, the school would have a fair degree of independence, so that may take a while to address. This reminds me of the time when Peter Kennedy was parish priest at St Mary's South Brisbane and was preaching things which were doctrinally suspect. The Church authorities took a fair while to act on this.

Edward Fido | 04 June 2019  

Thanks for responding, John RD and Edward Fido. The Catholic organisation which I’m suggesting should exist would be something like the American Council on Civil Liberties which isn’t shy to go to court to defend those things which it counts as civil liberties. Yes, it is Catholic Education’s duty to see to it that education in Catholic schools is Catholic, but that is a defensive posture. The impetus to change the formula at All Hallows came from intellectual currents in society outside. Paul VI referred to the ‘smoke of Satan’ entering the Church. Whether or not you believe that heterodoxy is Satanic or simply permissible democratic disagreement, the concept of something outside flowing into the Church and its agencies holds. Catholic Education’s brief can only be to barricade against the bad ideas in the external. It is vigorous lobbying as is done by the ACLU that changes the bad ideas in the external.

roy chen yee | 05 June 2019  

As a teacher of Religious Studies, over a decade ago, I decided on the concept of "Stewardship of the Planet" as the best way to show the tenants of Social Justice Teaching to my students. Apart from the very evident inequality of the sharing of the world's resources, sadly now obvious in Australia, the issue of human induced climate change is increasingly important but sadly very spoken about during the recent campaign from concerned parties including our Church representatives . I wonder if at the end of our time when we face our Final Judgement if God will ask each of us; "( Name) How well did you care for my creation?" What will our response be? I strongly believe that as Catholics and Christians in general, we have a responsibility to account for our actions that imperil the other people, creatures and other life forms in our world. They have as much right to exist as we do. They are all God's creation My hope is that our new representatives will take a strong stance when dealing with the government on reversing the trend from "individualism" to a "Shared responsibility" for all.

Gavin O'Brien | 08 June 2019  

So long as the Catholic Church draws its membership from across all sections of society there can be no such thing as 'the Catholic vote.' Indeed, the death-knell for confessional parties sounded in the post-War European theatre when class politics based upon the ownership and distribution of capital set the parameters in the developed world for how democratic polities vote. If there is a Catholic factor in the politics of democratic states it is strictly confined to polities in which the numbers of Catholics are such as to make their mobilisation possible and the issue in question of such unifying significance as to mobilise a vote that makes a difference. In living memory the only time this has happened is when DLP voters gave their second preferences to the Coalition Parties in order to secure state-aid for Catholic schools. Whitlam overturned the confessional political disadvantage this represented for Labor when he offered state-aid to all schools. At the time Catholic schools were offered the integration option that Chris Curtis mentions, but turned it down. As a result the Coalition has used the Catholic school dispensation to fund all private schools. Collins has her work cut out to redress this injustice!

Dr Michael FURTADO | 09 June 2019  

Its disappointing to see Warhurst's spritely analysis of the election and its impact on Catholics being misread to reflect poorly on feminist theology and its impact on Catholic schools. As it happens, the current head of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission, Dr Leanne Perry, played a leading part in the development of a theological statement on Gender Equity, when I was Education Officer, Peace, Justice & Development at Brisbane Catholic Education (1985-92). The Statement was developed after much prayer and discernment, as well as major input from a Spiritual Reflection Day co-ordinated by the feminist theologian and Deputy-Editor of The Tablet, Margaret Hebblethwaite. Based on her impressive theological book, 'Motherhood & God', Hebblethwaite, an Oxford don, parish worker, mother and missionary, showed that theology is a reflection on our experience in the light of what we know about God, as well as reflecting on God in the light of our experience. I organised the day, and its principal participants included several directors of Catholic Education as well as many teachers, both female and male, religious and lay. Hebblethwaite made us think seriously about how the female metaphor for God made just as much sense as the male. Go All Hallows'!

Michael Furtado | 10 June 2019  

Michael Furtado: “It’s disappointing to see Warhurst's spritely analysis of the election and its impact on Catholics being misread to reflect poorly on feminist theology and its impact on Catholic schools…. Based on her impressive theological book, 'Motherhood & God', Hebblethwaite, an Oxford don, parish worker, mother and missionary, showed that theology is a reflection on our experience in the light of what we know about God, as well as reflecting on God in the light of our experience....Go All Hallows'!“ It can’t not be the case that part of what we know about God is textual evidence in canonical ‘Holy Scripture’ of Jesus referring to the Creator as “Abba”. In the light of our experience with how women have been treated by men over the eons, can it not be possible that what is being taught is that men are lacking if they lack certain qualities ascribed to the feminine, the psalmic sheltering of the faithful under ‘pinions’, for example, not that the ‘Abbahood’ of God should be removed from the trinitarian formula?

roy chen yee | 11 June 2019  

To examine the foundations of Edward Fido's theory linking Peter Kennedy with gender equity for its consistency and plausibility: Kennedy was the first Catholic priest I encountered in Australia who showed any semblance of theological literacy in his homilies. His readings of the day were always accompanied by some insight or other that encouraged his congregation to reflect on the contextuality of God's Word rather than to read it as preserved in aspic. His theological literacy, encased in an accessible delivery, helps explain why his Masses attracted over a thousand Catholics and others over many years. He also invited Commissioner Fitzgerald to address the parish about the extent of Police Corruption in Qld, which makes the easy suggestion of something rum in Qld attributable to him highly suspect. The article from which Fido quotes was clearly written by a reporter with no understanding of advances in feminist theology, referenced by me elsewhere in this discussion. It is now commonplace across the developed world for Catholic women, young and old, to be conscious of a spirituality that is beyond gender and addressed in appropriately inclusive linguistic terminology. The fact that the reporter approached two secular schools for comment reflects this gaucheness.

Michael Furtado | 11 June 2019  

Key stakeholders, Please read my book on the "Inner Child " experiences of 9 years of growing up in Catholic Orphanage www.Jae-Dee.com

Denise Brooks | 20 October 2019  

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