April 10th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic underclass behind marriage and fertility decline

EDITORIAL: Uncommunicative patients - a call on our compassion

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Latham Iraq gaffe signals the honeymoon is over

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The next Four Corners? / Granada

SOCIETY: Who benefits from drugs?

AGRICULTURE: Farmers rallying to fight for industries

ECONOMY: Australia's foreign debt set to grow

The Passion (letter)

Sugar prices (letter)

Tobacco and pharmaceuticals (letter)

Ageing population (letter)

ETHICS: The ethical responsibility of a Christian politician

ECONOMY: US-Australia Free trade agreement and the national interest

TAIWAN ELECTION: Saved by commonsense

PAKISTAN: Inside Pakistan's nuclear weapons program

HONG KONG: Poll battle looms over democratic reforms

BOOKS: Benign or Imperial? Reflections on American Hegemony, by Owen Harries

FILM REVIEW: The Last Samurai

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The ethical responsibility of a Christian politician

by Tony Abbott

News Weekly, April 10, 2004
Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, recently delivered the following lecture (here slightly abridged) to launch the Adelaide University Democratic Club, an associate organisation of the Thomas More Centre and the National Civic Council (NCC). He dedicated the address to one of Australia's greatest poets and supporters of the NCC, the late James McAuley.

Professor James McAuley, the founding editor of Quadrant magazine, was one of Australia's greatest poets, most notable public intellectuals and most prominent converts to Catholicism. In the late 1960s, he helped begin the Peace with Freedom movement which was a response to the relativism, nihilism and defeatism of Vietnam War era Australian campuses.

Religious faith became the bedrock and inspiration of McAuley's life. He lived a kind of lay vocation: to give glory to God through his poetry and to defend the religiously inspired traditions of Western culture. Faith and culture provided armour against the torment to which great artists seem prone.

B.A. Santamaria

One of his best known poems, written at a time of one political disaster after another, was ostensibly addressed to B.A. Santamaria and the other soldiers of the Industrial Groups, but also to the doubt verging on despair he felt about a Church he had joined just as it was losing its way:

... Soon you must return to tasks
That sicken and appal:
The calumnies will never cease,
Look only to the sign of peace,
The Cross upon the wall ...

As with most religions, "love God" is the first Christian commandment, but co-equal is the commandment to "love your neighbour as you love yourself". "Treat others as you would have them treat you" is the basic rule of any Christian society. From this, the principles of representative democracy, equality before the law, freedom of speech and respect for minorities naturally flow. Athenian democracy pre-dated Christianity but Greek philosophy permeates the Epistles of the New Testament which describe the first attempts to live according to Christian principles.

Despite the debt that political institutions owe to the West's Christian heritage, there is the constant claim that Christians in politics are confused about the separation of church and state. There's also a tendency among Christians in the community to think that Christians in politics have to sell out their principles in order to survive.

A Christian politician faces the double test of not only being an effective politician but also being a credible Christian. A Christian life means constantly striving - and constantly failing - to be more like Jesus. It means giving others the benefit of the doubt; seeing the good in opponents; hiding one's own light under a bushel; forgiving people not once but seven times seventy; and being ambitious for the higher things rather than the higher office.

This is not easy for anyone, but is especially hard to reconcile with the hyper-partisan culture of Australian politics. Still, these are not religious values but the very best human values and those with a vocation for politics would scarcely be better Christians for shunning the challenge.

Religious faith is not necessary for a life of compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, mercy and love but the comparative lack of humanist missionaries in the most impoverished corners of the third world or rationalist hospitals in the worst war zones suggests that it certainly does help.

So, what makes a "Christian politician"? If God really exists and religious faith really means something, there should be no such thing as "Sunday Christians". Christian politicians cannot check their faith into the parliamentary cloakroom and be otherwise indistinguishable from everyone else. Still, modern society is not a community of believers and the parliament is not the place to make rules for one.

Cardinal Newman once said that if Catholicism and truth appear to be at odds, it's not really Catholicism, it's not really true, or there's no real conflict. He was making the point that religious faith does not require people to reject human reason. The truths revealed by faith complement the truths revealed by reason. They don't contradict them.

There's no sense in the Gospels of compelling people to believe or forcing people to be free. Jesus drove the traders from the temple because they were profaning a sacred place, not because they'd argued over theology.

The only instance of anything resembling coercion in the Gospels is when one of the party arresting Jesus has his ear sliced off - and the perpetrator was the impulsive Peter not Jesus. Between Constantine and the counter-reformation, Catholicism was frequently compulsory but, these days, the Vatican supports the right to religious freedom as ferociously as it affirms the truths of the faith.

A Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, which the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued in late 2002, states that the "autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church - but not from that of morality - is a value which has been attained and recognised by the Catholic Church and belongs to the inheritance of contemporary civilisation".

Although the document notes that Catholics cannot lead parallel private and public lives, one governed by the rules of the Church and the other ruled by the spirit of the age, it also states that the Pope has warned many times against the confusion of the religious and political spheres. Catholic politicians, in other words, should live in accordance with faith, hope and charity but try to ensure that the civic order reflects prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice - the universal virtues first elaborated by Aristotle.

Hippocratic Oath

The problem with laws allowing doctors to kill the terminally ill is not that they offend Church teaching, but that they are contrary to human wisdom. There is a fundamental difference between relieving pain, which is simple humanity, and ending life, which is contrary to the pre-Christian Hippocratic injunction to do no harm.

Withdrawing treatment from people who would otherwise be dead is fundamentally different from killing people who would otherwise be alive. Christian revelation was not necessary to form the view that the Northern Territory euthanasia law converted human beings into disposable commodities to be put down when old, useless or in pain.

It seems that a strong majority of MPs, of whom many were not Catholic and some not Christian, wondered whether the point of these laws was not so much to ease the pain of the dying (for whom anaesthesia is available), but to ease the pain of their relatives who can't be anaesthetised against the mystery and terror of death.

The problem with laws allowing experimentation with embryos is not that they are contrary to Church teaching, but that they don't show the ordinary respect due to human life. An embryo may not literally be a human being but it certainly has the potential to become one and therefore deserves a better fate than to expire in a beaker or be experimented upon like a laboratory animal.

The problem with the contemporary Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother's convenience.

Even those who think that abortion is a woman's right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year. What does it say about the state of our relationships and our values that so many women (and their husbands, lovers and families) feel incapable of coping with a pregnancy or a child?

Our society has rightly terrified primary school children about the horrors of smoking but seems to take it for granted that adolescents will have sex despite the grim social consequences of teenage single parenthood. If half the effort were put into discouraging teenage promiscuity as into preventing teenage speeding, there might be fewer abortions, fewer traumatised young women and fewer dysfunctional families.

Why isn't the fact that 100,000 women choose to end their pregnancies regarded as a national tragedy approaching the scale (say) of Aboriginal life expectancy being 20 years less than that of the general community?

As a local MP, I am regularly challenged over the Government's policy on the detention of boat people. "How can you live with yourself as a Catholic", the argument runs, "when your government treats women and children with such cruelty?"

When it comes to lobbying local politicians, there seems to be far more interest in the treatment of boat people, which is not morally black and white, than in the question of abortion which is. Oddly enough, no local Christian has ever asked me how, as a Catholic, I can preside over a Medicare system which funds 75,000 abortions a year.

Family values?

I fear there is no satisfactory answer to this question. As it happens, the Government gives nearly $1 million a year to "pro-life" family planning groups (but $13 million to "pro-choice" groups) and provides a quarter of a million dollars to the Federation of Pregnancy Support Services.

Still, as a gesture of support for traditional values, this lacks even the drama of King Baudoin of Belgium's abdication for a day rather than sign an abortion bill into law.

In numerous important ways, the Howard Government has not been a creature of the zeitgeist. The Government has facilitated the parliamentary overthrow of the Northern Territory's assisted suicide law, banned human cloning, stopped the ACT heroin trial, backed the Catholic bishops' challenge to lesbian IVF, singled out stay-at-home mums for extra financial assistance, generously helped religious schools and, most recently, sought to allow Catholic schools to offer scholarships to male teachers.

Even so, as a measure of the moral health of our society, 100,000 terminated babies is a statistic which offers no comfort at all.

These days, there are two broad types of "Christian in politics". There's the Christian MP who seeks to reinforce ethical values and the Christian MP who's keen to promote the "social Gospel". In essence, the social Gospel seems to mean that Christians' charitable obligations should largely be taken over by government.

Paradoxically, Christians activists who pursue the social Gospel are less likely to be labelled religious bigots than those who stress the Ten Commandments, even though they are attempting to apply in public life the theological virtue of charity rather than the natural virtue of justice.

Individuals giving away their fortunes inspire others to lead more selfless lives. Governments increasing social security benefits can easily discourage people from thrift and responsibility. Heroic virtue in an individual can be monumental folly in a government.

It's easy to confuse the Christian calling of individuals with the public duty of governments. Love is a fine guide for individuals but folly for governments.

Still, confused thinking about how to help the vulnerable is better than none at all. The sense that things aren't right and that every person has a duty to make a difference is at the heart of the Christian calling and helps to explain the relative strength and solidarity of countries like ours.

For Christian politicians, McAuley offers a final consoling insight:

... It is not said we shall succeed,
Save as his Cross prevails:
The good we choose and mean to do
Prospers if he wills it to,
And if not, then it fails.
Nor is failure our disgrace:
By ways we cannot know
He keeps the merit in his hand,
And suddenly as no-one planned,
Behold the kingdom grow!

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