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Religion and politics Sydney-style


Religion and politics are frequent bedfellows. In Australia the relationship takes various forms. Many clerics and bishops hold strong political views, and many lay Catholics are active within political parties, including as parliamentarians and government ministers on all sides. 

Many issues are common to both state and church affairs. Currently this applies to so-called 'moral' issues like abortion and euthanasia and to so-called 'social' issues like global warming and gender equality and sexuality. Indigenous rights, including the recent Voice referendum, is another recent example of the mix of politics and religious morality. The church was divided. Some Catholics put the emphasis on the former, but many were in no doubt that it was a religious/moral issue. 

Clerical and lay Catholics can show their political adherence in various low-key ways.  Where various Catholic celebrities stand is often common knowledge but not trumpeted. Political party membership is generally kept private, but there are other general indicators. Some on the right show their ideological persuasion by public attendance at functions run by the Centre for Independent Studies, the Institute of Public Affairs, or Quadrant magazine. Some on the left reveal their public position by participating in or supporting Palm Sunday marches or demonstrations in favour of refugee rights or climate action. 

Leaders of Catholic agencies sometimes have political backgrounds (presently there are two former Labor senators holding senior church positions, for instance), but it is presumed that their active participation in party politics, though not their personal allegiances, are left behind. When lay and clerical Catholics come together in church activities these allegiances are known, but not advertised. All are asked to leave their ideologies at the door. 

This rule applied at the Plenary Council, for instance. We were asked not to advance agendas or to promote ideologies. Political differences were on clear display on the floor of the council, but they weren’t presented as such. This lowers the heat in the room and enables synodal discussions and spiritual conversations to proceed. Outside the room public condemnation of the stance of some council members in certain church media was fierce, but inside the council there was less of this sort of behaviour.  

Against this background it was surprising to hear that the more than 100 Australian attendees at the recent right-wing Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) conference in London included the Archbishop of Sydney and the chief executive of Sydney Catholic Schools. ARC was the idea of controversial author Jordan Peterson. It had conservative billionaire backing (hence, reportedly, there were many free travel and accommodation packages for attendees). Australian attendees included familiar names among former and present Catholic politicians. 


'The successful embedding of synodality within the church in Australia depends upon the existence, or at least the perception, of a certain amount of middle ground and of leaders who respect the diversity of views within the Australian Catholic community and act accordingly.' 


Unsurprisingly one prominent Catholic was former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. On the side lines of the conference Abbott launched an anti-climate action energy security paper produced by the Institute of Public Affairs. He proceeded to condemn the idea of any human-induced climate warming as a ‘climate cult’. 

The tone of these comments was not unexpected, but Abbott is not an official church figure, and he is free to do as he pleases, despite his prominent presence at official church events. 

What was more surprising was the presence of Archbishop Antony Fisher and church bureaucrat Dallas McInerney, though the latter is well-known as a major player in Sydney Liberal Party circles. Their decision to attend certainly nailed their right-wing colours to the mast on a range of contested social and moral issues.  

The nature of this conservative conference meant that participation cannot be described merely as an educational exercise for official church leaders. It clearly had political intent, and the networking possibilities were clearly right-wing. Expect prominent figures from the conference, including Peterson himself, to begin appearing at church functions in Australia in certain dioceses. 

This conservative gathering was happening at a time when many of the same issues are being discerned within the church at the 2023-24 Synod on Synodality. Archbishop Fisher came virtually straight from the Synod in Rome. The contrast could not be more marked between the Synod and the ARC conference and, for instance, between Abbott’s views on climate change and those expressed by Pope Francis at the Synod. 

Such issues are also being discussed within Catholic parishes and schools in Sydney and are far from resolved. Parents, staff, and students in these schools who are not right wing on climate and gender equality, for instance, have every reason to be watchful. 

The Sydney archdiocese is a powerhouse of conservative Catholicism in many ways. The presence of the Archbishop and the Schools CEO at this conference may be defended on the grounds that it removed forever the veil behind which shadowy politics operates within the church in Australia. Such transparency is welcome. But if that is the case then we are fast becoming like the American church where conservative billionaires and church leaders are bedfellows. The successful embedding of synodality within the church in Australia depends upon the existence, or at least the perception, of a certain amount of middle ground and of leaders who respect the diversity of views within the Australian Catholic community and act accordingly. 




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and was a member of the Plenary Council.

Main image: St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. (Xavier Arnau/ Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Sydney, Catholic, Church, Politics



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Existing comments

Given the general 60:40 result, even if the proportion of "No" to "Yes" within the Catholic population is not known, might it have been more empirical to have said, "Many put the emphasis on the former, but some were in no doubt that it was a religious/moral issue"?

Is there a middle ground where the subterranean capacity of language to induce a picture in the listener or reader's mind is respected by language which is deliberately restrained to the empirical?

s martin | 15 November 2023  
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To answer S. Martin's first question as an empiricist, I cannot detect a difference between Warhurst's question & Martin's. Warhurst, a political scientist, is an empiricist par excellence, rising to the highest recognised ranks of academic & research standards at Australia's premier university. His argument is always carefully constructed and exceedingly well-framed. He is not a journalist and, accordingly, is not constrained, by the journalist's ethical obligation to present both sides of a case, thereby sidestepping all discussion of estimation in favour of being seen to be 'balanced'. He is careful too to avoid polemic, which in any case ES' editors would not permit in an author in a Jesuit journal.

As to Martin's second question, the answer is 'Yes'. There is nothing subterranean about Warhurst's opening remarks about Catholics coming from across the entirety of the Australian political spectrum. And, indeed, because of the failure of Martin's first question to convince me that Warhurst is engaged in trickery or a falsehood based on a logical fallacy, it simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny as having any validity.

I thank Professor Warhurst for his careful deconstruction of the recent ARC event and hold +Fisher & McInerney accountable for their attendance.

Michael Furtado | 17 November 2023  

If you were coming to this matter as an empiricist, somewhere in your first paragraph would be reasoning justifying why it is not (or less) empirical, given the general 60:40 result, even if the proportion "No" to "Yes" within the Catholic population is not known, to have said, "Many put the emphasis on the former, but some were in no doubt that it was a religious/moral issue"?

The general result suggests that most voters thought that the topic was political. Most voters (the "many") put the emphasis on the former. "Some", the minority, thought that it was a moral issue. It could also be said that "the many" might also have thought the issue had moral implications, but not enough to outweigh the political implications, while a lesser number (the "some") might have thought that political as the issue might have been, a morality of some kind was outweighing.

Social science relies for its status as science on its following, as far as possible, the methodological values of the physical sciences. A "scientist" is obliged to be balanced when presenting a case for, otherwise, how else can s/he show that a hypothesis ought to be supported?

s martin | 19 November 2023  

You present a good case for scientific empiricism that may not apply to the rules of evidence in all circumstances.

It happens that much quality writing relies on a use of critique that demands the expression of an 'epistemic voice'.

I can cite several examples of this in which the bland presentation of facts does not meet the test of sufficiency and quality of evidence necessary for a case to be persuasively made and carried.

For instance, in both my Masters and Doctoral degrees an examiner took the view that the evidence I presented lacked the kind of quality and sufficiency that warranted a successful result.

The matter in both instances went to a third examiner who came down in my favour in both cases with lengthy and persuasive adjudications on the nature & suitability of my epistemology.

This is the theory of knowledge, especially in regard to the scope & validity of my methodological choice and the quite separate distinction between my justified beliefs and the randomised criticisms (which were tellingly dismissed as 'opinions') of my second examiners, and which in one instance was described as 'bordering on prejudice'.

Pope Francis, in eschewing 'ideology', appears to favour this method.

Michael Furtado | 23 December 2023  

The recent ARC conference in London had quite a range of centre-right speakers. Some, like Australians Andrew Hastie and John Anderson, neither being Catholic, I have some estimation for. Others, like John Howard, are very much 'yesterday's men'. The Australian Catholic Church, particularly the Sydney archdiocese, has a reputation for hyper conservatism abroad. Jordan Peterson is an extremely polarizing figure. Some of his ideas are good, others not so. I would hesitate to introduce him and his ideas into the educational discourse of the Catholic Church. I do not think Anthony Fisher nor Dallas McInerney is in sync with Pope Francis on anything. That includes the Synod on Synodality.

Edward Fido | 15 November 2023  

What is it in the Sydney water that results in it being not only the 'powerhouse of conservative Catholicism' but also having the most conservative Anglican diocese in the country, and, I suspect, the most conservative Presbyterians? Surely we can't put it down to its convict origins, or does it follow from the authoritarian way in which the early colony was governed?

Ginger Meggs | 16 November 2023  
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I should think Catholicism in Sydney has more to do with respect for Church teaching based on scripture and tradition and the relationship of these sources to pastoral care than it does to political conservatism, the local waters or early colonial conditions, Ginger.

John RD | 22 November 2023  

That's what Sydney's Anglican hierarchy would say too John. It's what we might expect a conservative group would say and they would probably also say that it was what drove their political conservatism. My question, not completely tongue in cheek, was what causes SYDNEY (not shouting, but I can't do italics) to be the home of so much religious conservatism and its associated political conservatism?

Ginger Meggs | 24 November 2023  

At the core of the author’s objections seems to be the concern that an Archbishop may have political views different to his.

Cath | 17 November 2023  

As a very long lifetime Sydney Catholic, I find myself strongly at odds with the conservatism of the Sydney archdiocese and certainly the direction of the control of the present SCS administration. Within the circles I mix, including teachers in Catholic schools, there is a very strong rejection of this conservatism. This conservatism I find odious and far from life-giving.

Anon Butter | 19 November 2023  

Warhurst's immense contribution to synodality's Australian context would be diminished without uncovering a crucial item in the jigsaw puzzle that the Pope has offered to us.

Central to Warhurst's influence as a political analyst invited to participate in a process requiring attendees to set aside the dictates of ideology & partisanship has to be some consideration of Catholic 'structure' if synodality is to be given a chance to work.

Lurking behind Warhurst's seemingly political (and allegedly personal) attack on an archbishop and his CEO, has to be a commentary on how some Church agencies are structured, especially in education, and in connection with which there is an institutional and cultural blindness about the pathologies that inadvertently set in when that happens.

In Victoria, as in some other states, the policy machinery (or framework) of Catholic education inclines towards placing institutional authority in the hands of a body dominated by the hierarchy and its nominees. No attention to the principle of accountability is thereby inherently honoured, as a consequence of which power tends to be concentrated within executive hands.

The recent events surrounding the dismissal of Michael Pezzullo, the Commonwealth's leading mandarin, illustrate what can go wrong when authority gets over-concentrated.

Michael Furtado | 02 December 2023  

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