Respect for politicians who represent all of us is crucial


I hope I am not one of those clergy who, according to His Eminence Cardinal Pell, “on questions of public morality strut around like peacocks and would certainly never dream of mentioning that those who differ from them on issues of public morality have any right to a primacy of conscience, and then when they come to matters of personal morality, on sexuality, marriage, family life, abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, immediately appeal to this chimerical primacy of conscience.”

Having publicly argued the church case in recent national debates on euthanasia and stem cells as well as on Aboriginal and refugee rights, I hope I can be seen as one with a consistent life ethic and a consistent approach on the primacy of the formed and informed conscience. In light of my experience as a participant in the national debate on embryonic stem cell research, let me offer some constructive and respectful reflections on the happenings here in Sydney this last fortnight.

The public consternation has focussed on the comments of Cardinal Pell and the reaction of the politicians to his initial press conference. So that will be my focus, but with a view to drawing some general conclusions applicable to all pastors and church leaders in relation to all issues debated in the public square.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have gone to some pains to avoid the Murdoch press’s initial depiction of a conflict between Cardinal Pell and myself as “divisions between church heavyweights over the primacy of conscience”. I am pleased to note that the Murdoch press then reported under the headline “Jesuit priest raps cardinal’s critics”.

The ABC radio news on the evening of 6 June 2007 carried this report:

New South Wales MPs have used a debate on new stem cell legislation to attack the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, after he warned parliamentarians against supporting the bill.

NSW Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees accused the Cardinal of blackmailing Catholic MPs.

"He can apologise, or he can invite further comparisons with that serial boofhead, Sheikh Al Hilali," he said.

State Planning Minister Frank Sartor says the comments border on zealotry.

"The days when the church burnt people in pots of oil are over," he said.

Health Minister Reba Meagher says they were disturbing.

"That the Cardinal would choose to intervene and threaten Catholic MPs in New South Wales demonstrated just how out of touch he has become," she said.

The previous day, the New South Wales Catholic bishops had issued a statement opposing a NSW bill which would permit the creation of human embryos only for destructive experimental purposes. The NSW bill was similar to laws passed previously by the Commonwealth and Victorian Parliaments. The bishops said, “"No Catholic politician - indeed, no Christian or person with respect for human life - who has properly informed his conscience about the facts and ethics in this area should vote in favour of this immoral legislation.” At his press conference on the release of the bishops’ statement, Cardinal Pell went on to warn “It is a serious moral matter, and Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the church.” Some politicians read this as a threat. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Cardinal later classed it as “hinting at sanctions for Catholic legislators who reject important teachings”.

I agree with the New South Wales bishops that persons with respect for human life should vote against this legislation. As an aside, I note my own preference for the style of statement made by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference at the time of the national stem cells debate. It was directed to all politicians and not specifically at Catholic politicians. Advocating a law for all citizens is a different exercise from preaching morality to the Church faithful.

If I were a politician I would be voting against this law because it will permit scientists to create human life for the purpose of destroying that life, while admittedly hoping to achieve good for others. However, I will continue to respect the conscience of those politicians who say that they have to legislate for all citizens including those who do not share their religious and philosophical presuppositions. Many Australians claim to respect human life while supporting embryonic stem cell research, distinguishing between human life, human beings and human persons.

There will be some politicians who respect human life who will be prepared in our pluralistic society to permit individuals to make their own decisions about the sacredness of the human embryo. I concede to them that there is a world of difference between voting for a law to remove criminal sanctions from morally contested behaviour by others and committing those morally contested acts yourself.

Recently Pope Benedict said the Catholic Church’s social doctrine “has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.” The same must go for the Church’s moral teaching based on contested philosophical questions about the status of the human embryo.

Truth enjoys primacy. The problem is when truth is contested. What then is to enjoy primacy of method for the individual Catholic wanting to act in accordance with the truth? Is primacy to be accorded to the formed and informed conscience of the individual or to the non-infallible statement of the Pope, Vatican dicastery or bishop? I opt for the former, insisting that the conscientious Catholic would seek guidance from the latter while not acting in accordance with the latter should such a directive be contrary to the individual’s formed and informed conscience. I have not seen this merely as a personal view but as an expression of Church teaching.

Bishop Anthony Fisher has put the issue well for all Catholics in his speech delivered in Rome in February. He said:

"[T]he Church maintains its high view of the dignity of conscience. From this several things follow:

-- that we must do our best to cultivate a well-formed and well-informed conscience in ourselves and those we influence;

-- that we must take responsibility for our actions and thus always seek seriously to discern what is the right choice to make;

-- that we should seek to resolve doubt rather than act upon it;

-- that we must follow the last and best judgment of our conscience even if, unbeknownst to us, it is objectively in error;

-- that we must do so in all humility, aware that our choice may be wrong and so be ready, if we later realize it is, to repent and start afresh; and

-- that we should avoid coercing people's consciences: People should if possible be persuaded rather than forced to live well and so be given a certain latitude."

In good conscience I have to decide what to do, once I have given due weight to the views of religious authorities. I am one priest who is delighted to learn that the New South Wales Premier attends mass and communion from time to time. I hope he keeps doing so. If Mr Iemma or Malcolm Turnbull (A Catholic Federal Minister who supported similar legislation) were to attend any mass at which I was presiding, I would not have the least hesitation in giving them communion.

The religious consequences of these politicians’ voting patterns in Parliament should first and foremost be private, pastoral matters for discussion with their pastors. I presume that there will be no problem or embarrassment if Mr Iemma or Mr O’Farrell present themselves for communion from Pope Benedict at Randwick Race Course on World Youth Day, despite their voting behaviour on embryonic stem cells. If any pastor were seriously wanting either of them to consider abstaining from communion, surely he would first take the initiative and engage in private pastoral conversation.

Cardinal Pell has said that on the issue of politicians voting wrongly and then presenting for communion, “We’d cross that bridge when we come to it.” Surely it is best that we all acknowledge that there is no bridge to cross in this instance and for the reason so well articulated by His Eminence: “We don't, when people come to us to communion we don't say, you know, you in the state of grace, you doing the right thing, we presume that people have worked this out in their own conscience and so we give them communion.”

Archbishop Hickey has acknowledged that those voting to permit cloning “may be in good faith, despite their action, because the obligation of conscience remains even when it might be an erroneous conscience.”

When considering the Church's voice in the public square, we need to distinguish questions of principle, prudence and pastoral solicitude. On an issue such as embryonic stem cell research, a church leader is surely entitled to take a stand on principle, informed by his religious tradition, opposing legislation aimed at permitting scientists to create human life for destructive experimentation.

We move from questions of principle to issues of pastoral solicitude when a church leader chooses publicly to give hints of sanctions against co-religionist legislators as Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Hickey have done this past month. Some pastors, myself included, think such suggestions should take the form of private advice rather than public hints; and public hints should always be preceded by private dialogue. There is also the pastoral consideration to be paid to those legislators and scientists who, in good faith, do not share our theological and philosophical presuppositions. There are good pastoral reasons for not classing them as “anti-lifers” and for avoiding analogies between a church and a political party, suggesting that “just as members of a political party who cross the floor on critical issues don't expect to be rewarded and might be penalised, so it is in the church”.

No it is not so in the church, or it ought not be. We are not like “a football club, a political party or a business”. We are the church, the people of God. Thankfully Archbishop Hickey has clarified that he was “not threatening to withhold communion from any Catholic MP who votes for the Bill. When people approach the altar we must presume good faith.”

Then there is the prudential side of every such public dispute. Media attention is more assured if one simplifies the protagonist's position as Cardinal Pell did again this week when speaking of “today's fashionable notion of the primacy of conscience, which is, of course secular relativism with a religious face.” But is it prudent to so simplify the protagonist's position as to caricature it? Is it prudent to hint in the public square at internal church sanctions when that could distract from, and even drown out, the coherent church statements of principle addressing a legislative or policy proposal?

As a Church we need to learn lessons of political prudence when it reaches the stage that a government minister sees fit to inform the Parliament, “As a Catholic I am saddened by the published stance of Cardinal Pell and I make it clear that my decision to vote against the bill should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement of the Cardinal's statements earlier this week.” In the public square, church authorities are armed only with public argument informed by and consistent with their religious tradition. Cardinal Pell is surely right when he says, “What we have to do is to try to establish rational principles that will be recognised as such by people of little religion, no religion or plenty of religion.”

Persuasion by argument, not coercion by authority, should be our religious hallmark in the public square. Greater ecumenical co-operation usually ensures that our message in the public square is more marked by persuasion than coercion.

There must always be room for diverse viewpoints on pastoral solicitude and prudent political action, even when there is unanimity within a religious tradition on questions of moral principle. To adapt slightly the words of Cardinal Pell in his interview on national radio this last Sunday night: Our role as pastors and teachers in the public domain “is to state what is the Catholic position and to explain the rational basis for that position so that people of no religion, or a lot of religion, or a little religion can at least understand what (we are) saying and potentially agree with (us).”

Greater dialogue within the church could only enhance the prospects of our message being heard and taken up beyond the confines of our own pews.

This is the text of a talk given on June 19 at  the Parramatta Clergy Dinner.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

Parramatta Clergy Dinner



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Existing comments

Frank Brennan's clear and objective article clearly demonstrates that he would make a much better Archbishop of Sydney than the present incumbent. I can only hope that Pope Benedict calls Cardinal Pell to head some dicastery in Rome and gives us an Archbishop, who is able to use argument and persuasion to present the Catholic position on any issue as Frank Brennan is so obviously able to do.

Rob Brian | 21 June 2007  

The weakness in Fr Brennan's position is that he does not articulate the circumstances in which he believes the Church can or should bring about consequences for legislators (such as witholding Communion).

Are there any circumstances in which such an action would be right? What if, for example, someone founded a political party whose policies were unequivocably based on the racial supremacy of Europeans. Would the Church be wrong to deny that person Communion until he or she had publicly repented?

In my view, the Church would be clearly justified in so acting in those circumstances. Catholic legislators should - of course - vote in accordance with their consciences and we must respect that. But the flip side of this is that the Catholic legislators should expect to face the consequences of their actions. If their actions are wrong and public, it creates a situation of scandal (in the technical, not the common sense of the term). The Church would be perfectly entitled (and perhaps compelled) to take public action to correct the legislator.

Of course, this action should only be taken in very serious circumstances. But legislation permitting the killing of unborn human life certainly meets this criterion.

The impression is left that Cardinal Pell has the far superior grasp of what is at stake here.

Chris A | 21 June 2007  

In response to Chris A's inquiry about when it would be right to impose consequences on politicians at the altar, I refer him to Chapter 3 of my recent book "Acting on Conscience" (UQP 2007) which contains a detailed treatment of this question. The chapter is entitled "Lessons from the United States in Election and Selection Mode".

frank brennan | 21 June 2007  

In response to Chris A's inquiry about when it would be right to impose consequences on politicians at the altar, I refer him to Chapter 3 of my recent book "Acting on Conscience" (UQP 2007) which contains a detailed treatment of this question. The chapter is entitled "Lessons from the United States in Election and Selection Mode".

frank brennan | 21 June 2007  

At the June 2006 US Catholic bishops’ conference, the retiring Cardinal McCarrick presented to the US Catholic conference of Bishops, the final and very inconclusive report of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians which noted:

“Every bishop has to respond to the call of his own conscience and circumstances. This is a time for respect for our common duties and different pastoral judgments as bishops, but most of all for building our unity as a body of bishops, recognizing how our individual actions affect other bishops and our entire community of faith.”

In his parting remarks to the Conference, McCarrick said, “My concern is the fear that the intense polarization and bitter battles of partisan politics may be seeping into broader ecclesial life of our Catholic people and maybe even of our Conference. We are called to teach the truth, to correct errors and to call one another to greater faithfulness. However, there should be no place in the Body of Christ for the brutality of partisan politics, the impugning of motives, or turning differences in pastoral judgment into fundamental disagreements on principle. Civility and mutual respect which we must witness are not signs of weakness or lack of commitment, but solid virtues which reflect confidence and faith.”
Then, thank God, a week later, on the feast of St Thomas More, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, gave communion to John Kerry at the installation mass for the new Archbishop of Washington DC who had shaken hands with Kerry and Senator Edward Kennedy as he entered the cathedral. Tomorrow, as we celebrate that feast again, let’s commit ourselves to civility and mutual respect inside and outside the church, acknowledging these “solid virtues which reflect confidence and faith.”

frank brennan | 21 June 2007  

Fr Frank's statement is cogently presented. He writes : "In the public square, church authorities are armed only with public argument informed by and consistent with their religious tradition." Even then, church leaders are themselves subject to the same logic about formed and informed consciences. They act in good faith, and may themselves be wrong in their presentation of the church's traditional position. I write as an Anglican, and can see that principle looking different in our tradition, but I believe the principle holds in each tradition.

Ted Witham | 21 June 2007  

The consciences of politicians voting for cloning at present must be objectively in error if truth (ie Catholic teaching on cloning) enjoys primacy. They can be wrong either ‘invincibly’ (ie through no fault of their own) or ‘voluntarily’ (ie through their own fault, negligence perhaps). Bishop Fisher says ‘we must follow the last and best judgment of our conscience even if, unbeknownst to us, it is objectively in error’. But in view of the very public proclamation of Church teaching on this issue and the very obvious responsibility for legislators to be informed, for politicians claiming to be Catholic at least, the fact that their consciences are in error cannot be ‘unbeknownst’ to them. Note that the Catholic Bishops’ statement mentions properly informing conscience. Some would say that it is too much to suggest that that the consciences of these politicians are voluntarily in error, but it is hard to draw any other conclusion. And if Church leaders remain silent this does a disservice to truth.

Peter Dolan | 22 June 2007  

It's a misuse of language (but more newsworthy) to call a warning a threat. It's ridiculous to call a warning blackmail. When a bishop (or anyone in a position of power) says that doing a certain thing would render someone liable to certain sanctions, he is warning. If he said he was intending to apply those sanctions he would be threatening.

Gavan Breen | 22 June 2007  

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