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Mixing Law, Religion and Politics

With a healthy dollop of individual conscience

By Frank Brennan

The prejudice and hostility to religious citizens is not often expressed publicly by our politicians.  But we should make no mistake. There is no longer, if there ever was, a special deferential respect reserved for those with a religious view of the world. When it comes to the classic moral debates such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning and stem cell research, it does not take long for religious prejudice to raise its head. 

In a liberal democratic society, you cannot expect to be taken seriously in the public square unless you are prepared to give an account of yourself and your convictions. It is not good enough to espouse a position just because some religious authority figure asks you to or because that authority says it is the true position. Respecting our own integrity as citizens and the integrity of our fellow citizens we can agitate only for proposals that command our real assent. Though we respect the authority of our church, we must accord absolute primacy to the conscience of the citizen engaged in public discourse about issues of law and policy, taking seriously our own conscience and the conscience of those charged with authority in the state.  

The human person is a moral agent who is shaped by his actions. By forming and informing her conscience, the human person is deciding not only what she wants to do but also who she wants to be. It is not only the mind or the will that acts morally but the whole person. As the person changes and grows, the conscience is formed and grows too.

So each conscience is unique as each person is unique. For the Catholic, the conscience is sacred ground where the person meets God; all others (including church authorities), unless invited in, are trespassers in this place. Pope Pius XII described conscience as "a sanctuary on the threshold of which all must halt, even, in the case of a child, his father and mother." John Henry Newman had earlier defined conscience "not as a fancy or an opinion, but as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us."

The Catholic view of conscience holds in tension the dignity and freedom of the human person, the teaching authority of the Church, and the search for truth and the good. The tension arises because the Catholic concedes not only the possibility but also the common reality of the incompletely formed conscience which may receive guidance from the Church's teaching authority. This tension accounts for the Catholic Church's unequivocal affirmation of the primacy of individual conscience against the State together with its occasional ambivalence about the role of conscience in relation to Church authority.

How do we get to the situation that Prime Minister John Howard can say, "There's no such thing as a Catholic or Anglican view on anything; it depends on individuals."? More importantly, if the Prime Minister is wrong, when is it appropriate to speak of a Catholic or Anglican view on a moral or political issue?

Though there is always room for disagreement about how principles are to be applied in practice, it is far too cavalier for government or their supporters to dismiss church leaders who have restricted themselves to statements of principle. It is not good enough for government simply to cherry pick their church leaders, and then, when they find even their preferred church leaders expressing concerns based on the religious tradition, to dismiss their remarks on the basis that each individual will decide.

Sure, each individual will make a decision in good conscience about how best to apply the relevant moral principles in the particular situation. But a Catholic or Anglican should receive some guidance from church authorities who confine themselves to expressions of principle true to the religious tradition. This should even be the case for a Catholic or Anglican cabinet minister in an Australian government which has control of both houses of Parliament.

Frank Brennan, SJ, is Professor of Law, Human Rights and Social Justice at the Australian Catholic University National’s Institute of Legal Studies. This is a synopsis prepared for Online Catholics of a free public lecture, Mixing Law, Religion and Politics, to be delivered by Professor Brennan at the Australian Catholic University (ACU National) North Sydney Campus (MacKillop) on Wednesday, 21 September in the Leone Ryan Auditorium, 40 Edward St, North Sydney, at 6.00pm for 6.30; at ACU National's Melbourne Campus (St Patrick's) on Thursday, 29 September in the Christ Lecture Theatre, 115 Victoria Parade, Fitzroy at 6.00pm for 6.30pm; and in Brisbane on Thursday, 13 October, at the Francis Rush Function Centre, Cathedral Precinct, Elizabeth Street, Brisbane, at 6.00pm for 6.30pm.


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