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Catholic Media Watch

Steady as she goes

by Michael Mullins

Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott risked scoring an own goal last month. He made a preemptive strike against possible disqualification from the Eucharist for presiding over a department that funds 75,000 abortions a year.

"I wish that my department didn't do this," he said, going on to explain what must be obvious to every bishop and Catholic politician in the land.

He said: "Tony Abbott the person has a whole series of views which Tony Abbott the Minister can't always have, because there is a sense in which as a Minister you are obliged by your office to carry out certain functions."

He needn't have bothered, for even some of the country's most conservative bishops were on side.

Melbourne's Archbishop Denis Hart was protecting Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, another Catholic politician forced by political circumstance to support abortion. Hart told The Sunday Age that the Premier's disagreement with Catholic teaching would have to be "public and notorious" for him to withhold the sacrament.

By contrast, across the Pacific some US bishops have been holding torches to the bellies of Catholic politicians whose political allegiance requires them to support abortion. At least four bishops have explicitly forbidden the distribution of communion to particular pro-choice Catholic politicians. 48 Catholic members of Congress have signed a letter to the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, deploring any ban. One bishop - Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs - has gone further by stating that Catholics who vote for pro-choice politicians are themselves ineligible to take communion.

So far, Australia's bishops have displayed a characteristic mix of common sense and "she'll be right" reluctance to stir the pot. One journalist managed to extract some advice for Catholic politicans from Bishops Conference President Archbishop Francis Carroll. There was no urging them to rebel against their party's pro-choice policies. Instead the message was simply to avoid presenting themselves for communion if their public statements or actions contradicted church teaching.

It seems like another triumph of pragmatism over passion. Leadership in the Australian Catholic Church is more about fire prevention than it is fanning the flames of religious fervour. It's true that individuals like Bishop Pat Power have confronted the PM when there've been important values at stake. But the majority of public interventions from the Bishops have taken the form of comparatively benign commentary, which admittedly has occasionally hit a raw nerve.

It's interesting that the Bishops failed to hit back last August after Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's stinging criticisms. He accused them of hypocrisy in their "intemperate denunciations of Australia's participation in the coalition of the willing in Iraq" while at the same time calling for humanitarian intervention in Rwanda, the Balkans and East Timor. Strangely enough, then Archbishop Pell suggested Downer had given "an excellent talk worth studying".

During the past six months, the Howard Government has delivered a range of policies and legislation that has no doubt pleased the Bishops, including a huge $362 million funding boost for schools in February, and a pro-family Budget and legislation to prevent gay marriage in May. It's not exactly outlawing abortion, but the "steady as she goes" approach to dealing with pro-choice Catholic politicians can't be all bad.

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