June 16th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reflections on the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx

EDITORIAL Significance of report into shooting down of MH17

CANBERRA OBSERVED Lee Rhiannon: too Bolshie or not Bolshie enough?

POLITICS Wading further through the Greens party bilge

ECONOMICS Vatican document nails some of the causes of the GFC

POLITICS Greens promise to keep Australia legally stoned and welfare dependent

ENVIRONMENT Scientist sacked for challenging claims of demise of Great Barrier Reef

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Humpty Dumpty has his way with words

CHRISTIANITY AND SOCIETY Tradition, Christianity and the law in contemporary Australia

EDUCATION Ladybird, ladybird: adventures in literacy

OFFICE LAUNCH NCC Sydney: a new chapter in a continuing story

ASIAN AFFAIRS Indonesia takes religious syncretism to the nth degree

WA RALLY FOR LIFE 3300 crosses in Perth poignant reminders of abortions

HUMOUR News snippets

PHILOSOPHY Bendigo initiative

MUSIC Gain is loss: Where is there left to discover?

CINEMA 2001: A Space Odyssey: Unsurpassed 50 years on

BOOK REVIEW The house that could not stand

BOOK REVIEW Australia's first official war historian


EDITORIAL China's pivotal role in Trump-Kim summit

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Tradition, Christianity and the law in contemporary Australia

by Michael Quinlan

News Weekly, June 16, 2018

Contemporary Australia appears to be in revolt against tradition and Christianity. Here Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the School of Law, Sydney, of the University of Notre Dame Australia, provides an explanation of what is going on and makes some suggestions about what needs to be done to turn back the revolution and turn things around.

When we think about the place of Christianity in Australia today and the seemingly endless challenges to the faith, the words of Christ recorded by St John is his Gospel (15:18–19) sound as though they were written today: “If the world hates you, you must realise that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you do not belong to the world, because my choice of you has drawn you out of the world, that is why the world hates you.”

Our Christian heritage

While we should not downplay our own travails, it is useful to reflect on the world at the time that Christ spoke those words. The world of Christ’s time was no paradigm of Christian virtue: divorce, slavery, poverty, starvation, abortion, infanticide, contraception and homosexuality were common.

Society shunned the poor, the leprous, the possessed and the physically and mentally ill. It was the infrequency of marriage in the Roman Empire – not its frequency – which, due to the consequent concerns about the dwindling birth rate, led to the introduction of succession and taxation laws to favour monogamous heterosexual married families.

Father Anthony Percy in Theology of the Body Made Simple (2006) observes that “the world at the time of Christ, and at the time of the early Church, was not unlike ours” and we can see aspects of that world reflected in our own. However, from the time of Christ, the love and service of Christians built upon the Greco-Roman world to transform the Western world. By the time the British established a penal colony in Australia, Christianity had seeped into and revolutionised the Western legal tradition, the common law and English law.

These influences are so ingrained that we often no longer see the fingerprints of Christianity in them. From Christianity the Western legal tradition found the need for equality before the law, equity, torts and human-rights law, recognised the evil of slavery, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Christianity also dem­anded social services, unemployment benefits, education, housing and medical care for the poor.

The new arrivals to Australia also brought racism, sectarianism and capital punishment with them but Christianity also demanded the abolition of the White Australia Policy and of capital punishment and better treatment for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


At Federation in 1901, the new nation “humbly [relied] on the blessing of Almighty God”, as the preamble to the Constitution records. Australia is a young nation but it inherited the Western legal tradition, illuminated as it is by Christianity. Since the first national census in 1911, the majority of Australians have identified as Christian.

Professor Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney and a director of Freedom For Faith, in Tradition and Change in Australian Law (2013), argues that traditions have an “intrinsic value” simply because they are traditions.

Professor Martin Krygier is the Gordon Samuels Professor of Law and Social Theory and Co-Director of the Network for Interdisciplinary Studies of Law at the University of New South Wales. In his article, “Law as tradition” (Law and Philosophy, August, 1986), he notes that the great contribution of tradition is that it has “done our thinking for us and to have done it ahead of time”.

He argues that: “Traditions, particularly recorded traditions, provide us with storehouses of possibly relevant analogies to our present problems, ways of thinking about such problems, and successful and unsuccessful attempts to solve them. It makes sense to try to imitate the successful attempts and avoid those which with hindsight appear unsuccessful.”

Political theorist Mark T. Mitchell of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, writes on the same question in “Polyani and the role of tradition in scientific inquiry” (Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(3), 2011). He puts it this way: “The resources of tradition make available to each generation the collected wisdom accumulated from generations past. To ignore such a repository of wisdom is tantamount to striking out across the ocean without aid of map or compass. It forces an individual or a society to relearn by trial and error that which has already been learnt. It is to ignore the advice of our collective parents and cavalierly to place our hand on the hot stove of reality. Such rashness in the face of such wisdom condemns those who reject the resources of tradition to stumbling blindly, groping in many directions, striving to blaze a new path while nearby a well-worn trail lies ready if only we are willing to submit to its authority.”

What is going on?

Today Christianity and tradition are more likely to be reviled in public discourse than celebrated. Australian society is turning on its heritage and not just at the margins but at its core foundations.

Stephen Newton observed in his speech on his retirement from the board of the University of Notre Dame Australia: “[Australian] society is turning against the very fabric of our [Catholic] faith – society’s moves to control or redefine birth, marriage and death are before us every day in the form of abortion, marriage equality and euthanasia legislation.”

Today in Australia the numbers of homeless continue to rise. Many states and territories have decriminalised and deregulated abortion and prostitution. One state has introduced assisted suicide and euthanasia, and others are considering doing so.

Several states and territories have criminalised a wide range of communications outside abortion clinics. Several states do not adequately protect the freedom of belief of health professionals. Some political parties are shifting away from guaranteeing freedom of conscience of politicians on all life matters.

Parental rights in relation to the education of their children on sexual morality are being disregarded. The courts have found that they do not need to regulate the treatment of children for gender dysphoria. Australia continues to reduce the financial aid that it provides to the world’s poor.

There are some simple explanations for this. For a start, there are a lot fewer Christians in Australia today. In the first census, in 1911, 96 per cent of Australians identified as Christian; in the last census, in 2016, this had fallen to 52.1 per cent.

While the numbers of adherents of other faiths has increased, it is the growth of the “No Religion” category which best explains the shift in moral attitudes. This has risen from 0.8 per cent in 1966 to 30.1 per cent in 2016. Only 31 per cent of teenagers and those in their 20s say that they believe in God. In the 2017 postal poll, 61.6 per cent of Australians approved of the redefinition of marriage. Eight per cent of Australian do not know any Christians and almost 18 per cent know nothing about the Christian Church in Australia.

Worse still, more than a quarter of Australians have a negative view of Christianity and 7 per cent are passionately opposed to it. Many Australians consider Christians to be greedy, judgemental, opinionated, hypocritical, intolerant, insensitive and rude.

American theologian Christian Brugger is an adjunct professor of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He is the author of The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent (2017). He puts it thus: “In Australia there is an astonishing level of religious ignorance and oblivion. Religion is simply not in the daily categories of thinking, and Catholicism, in general, has a negative connotation on the streets here.”

But why is it so?

Researcher and author Mary Eberstadt, in How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (2013), argues that the proliferation of divorce and the decline in the family have deprived children of role models of the healthy relationships that are essential to understand the Holy Family and the Trinity. This has no doubt contributed to the failure of families, schools and the Church to teach the faith.

As the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse has shown, Christian institutions were among those that failed to act quickly and appropriately to stop child sexual assault. Whether the Commission and the media’s focus on transgressions by Catholics in particular was fair or not, it has had a huge adverse impact on attitudes towards Christianity, in particular Catholicism.

What can we do?

Christians need to live and spread the Gospel each in accordance with his or her particular gifts and talents. History has much to teach us. It was Christian love for the poor and marginalised that made it so attractive as the early Church spread the Gospel. It was Christian parents and a comprehensive education system sharing the faith that spread the Word.

Christian families, schools, universities and the Church all bear a present responsibility to re-evangelise, to teach the faith and the Western legal tradition with fervour and intellectual rigour. Academics must commit themselves to conducting research and scholarship to bring to light the fallacy of much contemporary ideology.

This does not mean retreating from the political arena. For example, changes in the law to protect freedom of religion and conscience adequately, to abolish modern slavery and to resist the spread of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and controls on freedom of speech and belief, are all important and require support and action. However, changes in hearts, minds and souls – not just changes in laws – are needed to reverse the changes taking place in our society.

Professor Quinlan delivered a version of this address at the event to launch the new office of the NCC in Sydney on April 26, 2018. See this edition for a report on the launch.

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