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Santamaria's Shadow: is there too much Church influence in matters of State?

The role of religion in an Australian election is unlike the role of religion in a US election. There, candidates outdo one another to demonstrate their Christian credentials and routinely claim divine support for their economic and political worldview. Here, candidates are careful not to attack one another on religious grounds. Earlier this month, Mr Howard rejected the views of a Perth Liberal MP, Mr Don Randall, who attacked Mr Latham for not being a Christian. Latham returned the favour, saying that he too would be keeping religion out of politics.

It's an Australian tradition.

Similarly, the intervention of the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops - ever so sweetly - to attack Labor's education policy, is also steeped in tradition. The Archbishops said that one independent school would be pitted against another, probably of a different faith tradition; to do so would be socially divisive, the Archbishops opined. This in 2004.

Rewind thirty years.

"On 9 August 1973, (B.A.) Santamaria contributed a desperate article to the Age entitled 'It's a Bribe with Barbs' in which he reflected on the integrity of the Karmel Committee, charged the Government with 'outright political bribery' and, of all slippery paradoxes, accused it of 'clear discrimination against children in Protestant schools...The bishops even considered Santamaria's hare-brained idea that Catholics would be accepting money 'which justly belongs to children in Protestant schools..." [James Griffin, in Santamaria, The politics of fear, p.19]

The Karmel Report, set up by the Whitlam Government (see Lionel Bowen's account in this issue) recommended a $660m programme to improve government and non government schools, according to need rather than through per capita grants. In an incident Griffin describes as "one of the most demeaning in Australian episcopal history", six Catholic bishops went along with Santamaria, even though it would have meant the destruction of many less affluent Catholic schools.

So why, in 1973 and in 2004, would Catholic leaders trot out the same unbelieveable arguments?

To hang on to control.

Commonwealth funding for Catholic schools is, overwhelmingly, the Catholic Church's greatest source of income. Not only does the Church receive some $3b a year from the taxpayer but, under various state Schools Grants Acts, is permitted to 'internally redistribute' these funds as it chooses.

Labor's attempt to re-direct funds from very well off independent schools to less well off independent schools is an effort to wrest some control back from the Church. That is at the heart of the Archbishops' objections to Labor policy.

The Liberal Government, on the other hand, appear to want precisely the opposite. By the strategic use of grants and legislation, the conservative side of politics is encouraging the Church to take on aged care, health and medical services, and a greater role in higher education. Professor Millicent Poole, Vice Chancellor of Edith Cowan University, is on the record as saying that the Liberal Party appears to be seeking to privatize higher education, as has occurred in secondary education.

The Roman Catholic Church in Australia is allowing itself to be used to facilitate the Liberal Party's privatization of essential social services.

Once in office, born to rule Catholics see no difficulty in imposing "Catholic" policies on the electorate. Minister for Health Tony Abbott (the son of a successful North Shore orthodontist and educated at Sydney's prestigious Jesuit college, Riverview) is a Catholic ideologue who recently announced his decision not to permit subsidy of ICSI, the single-sperm procedure because of "potential risks to children born as a result [which have] community and ethical implications".

There are no reputable scientists who believe that there are risks to ICSI children, according to Monash's Prof Gab Kovacs. Abbot's view is taken directly from Vatican policy, via a Dr. Carlo Bellieni, who published his view that "in vitro fertilization, a practice that entails high risks for the health of a child, reflects a trivialization of conception" in Zenit, the Vatican's News agency, on 7 June this year.

So, does the Church have too much influence on the State?

Perhaps it is that the State has had too much influence on the Church. During the election period the Church as an institution has shown itself to be is overly preoccupied by power, corporatism and the balance sheet, at the expense of equity, inclusiveness and participation. There are too many deals, too little disclosure, too many legislative amendments that appear designed to serve the fiduciary interests of Catholic institutions.

For a prescription of how the Church should involve itself in politics, we could do worse than to follow this remarkable statement to a group of Catholic members of the UK Parliament by the English Cardinal Hinsley in 1936:

"We don't want a Catholic bloc. We don't want a Catholic trade union movement. What we want is to continue as we have started, to involve Catholics in public life. If we've got something to offer it is to the community, not to the Church. In a Catholic school, the children have opportunities which are not given to others: Catholic interests immediately increase the scope and vision of children. A Catholic education is really a very broad thing... and provided a Catholic goes into public life really unselfishly, as part of his apostolate, in order to give, then the less concentration of Catholic interests the better. The more they are identified with their Party and their country, the happier we are."

quote taken from:
Santamaria - The Politics of Fear
Xavier Connor, James Griffin, Val Noone, Paul Ormonde & Colin Thornton-Smith, edited by Paul Ormonde
Spectrum Publications

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