Unmanly whingin’REV. RAYMOND DE SOUZA
It takes some doing to be both cowardly and tyrannical at the same time, but the Speaker of the Western Australia Legislative Assembly pulled that off in the recent controversy over embryonic stem cell research.
Here in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, local Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey set off quite a firestorm when he said that Catholic politicians who support embryonic stem cell research should not present themselves for Holy Communion. When asked, he also conceded that the possibility of excommunication existed in such cases, though he did not think it likely.
The directness of the statement took some aback, but the logic was easy enough to follow. There are some public matters which can damage a Catholic’s relationship with his Church. (The same is true of serious, more hidden sins: Unrepentant philanderers are not supposed to present themselves for Holy Communion, either.) The destruction of innocent human life is one of those public matters with serious consequences. So too are many others — a Catholic who voted to permit racial segregation would also find himself doing something the Church teaches as evil. Archbishop Hickey’s point is that voting for such things has consequences — both in this world and the next. As a pastor of souls, he has a duty to warn members of his flock about such consequences, and protect the integrity of Church teaching by making it clear that such positions are inconsistent with practising the Catholic faith.
By now, everyone knows how such controversies are to play out. The archbishop’s comments are to be declared out-of-bounds since they mix religion and politics, and are therefore, supposedly, a threat to the secular character of modern democracy. The archbishop then protests the anti-religious double standard that permits everyone else — union officials, business leaders, pop stars — to speak out, but discourages religious leaders from doing the same, unless the issue happens to be advocating for fashionable causes like protecting the environment or AIDS relief.
That should be how it went here, but the Speaker of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, Fred Riebeling, evidently doesn’t much care for such democratic vigour. He reported Archbishop Hickey to the procedure and privileges committee (of which he is the chairman), on the grounds that the archbishop’s comments constituted a “threat” to Catholic MPs; and in Western Australia, it is a crime to threaten MPs in seeking to influence their vote. It remains to be seen whether the committee will actually summon Archbishop Hickey to answer for his allegedly criminal behaviour, or whether the Speaker just enjoys throwing around threats himself.
The gross violation of religious liberty is plain enough. If a Christian pastor cannot instruct his own congregants about the religious consequences of their public actions without running afoul of the law, then the state has become infected with a totalitarian virus. Only a truly vainglorious politician would think that election to public office somehow confers upon him a kind of immunity from public correction, or public religious instruction. There is a certain ridiculous self-puffery to this speaker in Oz, dreaming of extending the jurisdiction of his procedures committee to the pastoral instructions of the local clergy. It is perhaps an understandable attractive diversion from his usual work, which included, in his most recent intervention in the legislature, reporting on the number of urinals in Parliament House. But Australians would be wise not to let their guard down, for a tyrannical buffoon still longs after tyranny, and religious liberties can be eroded when everyone is distracted by the silliness of it all.
There is an embarrassing dimension to all this, too. Blame it on too many Australian wildlife programs, or Australian Rules Football, but I had a rather manly image of the Australian bloke. The pusillanimous man who whines about others and wants to summon a committee of monitors to protect him from the local parson doesn’t strike me as very, well, Australian, let alone how things would be done out here in the country’s far west.I would have thought Australia rather behind our Canadian tendency to whine about offences, real or imagined, raising ridiculous points of privilege in the House of Commons, or calling upon the relevant ombudsperson when feelings are hurt. It wasn’t that long ago that some aggrieved activists went running to the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal to seek relief from Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary’s preaching against gay marriage. That too was a violation of religious liberty and a case of pathetic whinging. I would have hoped that Australia would be better.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Unmanly whingin’." National Post, (Canada) June 14, 2007.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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