The case for muting Tony Abbott’s Catholicism

The “devout” Catholicism of the hapless Tony Abbott was analysed once more, on ABC TV’s Insiders on Sunday morning, following a week of intense national debate on embryonic stem cell research.

Even Prime Minister John Howard appears to be ignoring what Abbott, his Health Minister, has to say on the issue, because of the perception that Abbott is pushing Catholic teaching rather than party policy. Nobody believes Abbott when he complains about the “gratuitous” devout Catholic tag, and asserts that his positions are based on human values rather than Catholic teaching.

But perhaps he’s right to be talking down his loyalty to Catholic teaching. As The Australian Financial Review’s Brian Toohey pointed out on Sunday’s Insiders, Abbott is, in fact, selective in his application of Church teaching to his public positions.

Toohey said: “I think what some Catholics find interesting is that it's one section of Catholic belief, what you might call personal morality, that he follows very hard. He doesn't seek to follow the Catholic Church's social teaching. The last Pope was extremely opposed to the war in Iraq. He wasn't. [There’s also] WorkChoices, which Catholic social teaching seems to be against. It's a particular, narrow version of morality.”  

Because Abbott is seeking to disentangle his public image from his Catholic faith, he probably doesn’t mind being accused of disloyalty to the Church on some issues. He might willingly step into the sin-bin usually reserved for Catholic politicians who oppose the war in Iraq and policies hostile to Catholic social teaching, but fail to reject their party’s pro-choice stance. He could even fess up to being a “cafeteria Catholic”, the label applied to Catholics who accept some, but not all, Church teachings.

Wherever he goes from here, it wouldn’t hurt for him to be more explicit in his opposition to certain Catholic social teachings. This would encourage Catholic leaders to be more circumspect in their attitude towards him. It could also enhance both the integrity of the Catholic faith, and Abbott’s own career prospects.

If Abbott’s Catholicism was sidelined, the often principled stands of other Catholic parliamentarians might be noticed. As Abbott himself points out, there are many Catholics in the Government.

Malcolm Turnbull is one whose Catholic faith influences, but does not determine, the positions he takes.

After the RU486 conscience vote back in February, he requested the recording of his support for a parliamentary (but not ministerial) veto over decisions made by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

He would have been perceived as letting the Church down by voting against a ministerial veto. But nevertheless he thought that morally sensitive drugs such as RU486 should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, over and above that of the TGA.

At the time, observers were bemused by his request to have his support for the amendment recorded. But he wanted it known that the religious right could still consider him a man of principle, even if he had not pleased them in the first instance.

There was nothing radical about Turnbull’s gesture, other than the fact that it was unusual. If they were really serious about acts of principle, he and some of the many other Catholic members of the Coalition parties might have joined the rebels who crossed the floor during the recent vote on amendments to the Migration Act.

We can only hope that the muting of Tony Abbott’s Catholicism will continue, and that other Catholics MPs will have some confidence that they will be heard if they choose to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on parliamentary debate.



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