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Catholic Archbishop tackles democracy and religious liberty

NEWS | Archbishop Anthony Fisher
Tuesday 27 October 2015

This excerpt of the Acton Lecture on October 14 is reproduced here, with permission.

The year is 2025 – nine years after a plebiscite narrowly approved same-sex ‘marriage’ and Parliament amended the Marriage Act and many other laws to remove all references to ‘a man and a woman’, ‘husband and wife’ and ‘mother and father’. After an initial flurry of rather colourful same-sex ‘weddings’, numbers have now plateaued to only a few hundred each year. Sociologists debate the long-term effects on public understandings of marriage and family. Certainly there have been political ramifications: no major party allows dissenters on this issue; this caused some significant haemorrhaging from Parliament before the 2019 election; even for most ‘independents’ going against ‘the tide of history’ on this matter is regarded as disadvantageous.

By 2025 public speeches and debates on same-sex ‘marriage’ and the like are rare as few organisations and venues are willing to risk the vilification that follows upon hosting them. The idea that marriage is a natural institution that precedes states and religions, that it is founded on sexual complementarity and oriented to family formation, is now regarded as unspeakable in the public square – though from time to time the usual suspects still raise it in their ‘extreme right-wing’ think-tanks, newspaper columns or pulpits.

Will all this come to pass in the decade ahead and, if so, what does it say about the quality of our democracy right now and about our nation’s particular take on secularity and religious freedom?

Democracies ignore religions at their peril.

Pope Francis identified respect for the democratic ideal of religious liberty as an essential pre-condition of peaceful coexistence, of an enriching pluralism, and of friendship and collaboration between people of different spiritual traditions. Democracies ignore religions at their peril. Religious communities play a crucial role in reminding democracies “of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of any claim to absolute power.” Precisely because it reminds us that there is more to creation than ourselves, that we are creatures and not gods, religious faith well-lived provides the wherewithal to resist mandated orthodoxies and totalising ideologies.

If religion is to continue making this contribution to democratic societies it must not be reduced, the Pope said, “to a subculture without the right to a voice in the public square.” The right “to worship God, individually and in community, as conscience dictates,” is certainly part of what religious freedom means. “But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families” and must be respected and valued in the public square as well. Reiterating what he has said on many occasions, the Holy Father recognized that in this ‘age of martyrs’ the religious liberty of Christians and other minorities is now openly attacked in places such as Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and North Korea; but it can also be compromised in contemporary democracies. Driving religion from the public square and hollowing it out from the inside by reducing it to rituals and private beliefs undermines democratic foundations. If democracies are to do great things they must maintain and renew their founding ideals.

When people like me and some of you enter the fray on marriage we now expect to be tagged “ultra-conservative”, “tedious imbecile”, “delusional nutter”, “evangelical clap-trapper” and even “nauseating piece of filth” not just in the anti-social media but even in the mainstream. What is new is that such ad hominem hails not just from fevered activists and net trolls but from respected journalists and public figures.

Advocates of ‘gay marriage’ seem to think no reasonable person could think other than as they do; that not only are they right on this issue, but that their opponents are irrational and operating out of blind traditionalism or, more likely, hatred.

Closed-mindedness is, of course, no monopoly of people engaging on same-sex ‘marriage’. But I think the refusal to listen is presently mostly on one side. Those in favour of the traditional understanding of marriage know their opponents’ slogans and arguments well: “tolerance and diversity”, “love is love”, “no to hate”, hence “marriage equality”. But advocates of ‘gay marriage’ seem to think no reasonable person could think other than as they do; that not only are they right on this issue, but that their opponents are irrational and operating out of blind traditionalism or, more likely, hatred. This is surely one of the strangest aspects of the ‘debate’ so far: that the understanding of marriage found in pretty well every serious civilisation, legal system, religion and philosophy till recently – that marriage brings together a man and a woman as husband and wife to be father and mother of any children that follow from their marital union – is now incomprehensible, even unspeakable, for many of our intelligentsia, journalists, politicians and business leaders.

In Western Europe today, as in the communist East of old, the tendency is to say that between Church and State ne’er the twain shall meet. Governments and courts increasingly exclude faith-based organisations from decision-making and service delivery. Dogmatic secularists ban Christmas decorations from public places, church bells from towers, crucifixes from schools or nurses’ necks, and any residual religious values in law and policy. Some want believers to renounce their most deeply held beliefs or stay silent about them in the public square. Religion is thought to be so inherently backward, even dangerous, that the tag ‘believer’, let alone ‘ultra-Catholic’, disqualifies one from civil leadership.

If there are countries in which state or culture-imposed atheism is dominant, there are others in which religious leaders dictate terms to government and society, including to those who do not share their faith. In the nightmare of the Arab Spring turned Jihadi Winter extremists seek to impose the only ‘pure’ version of the only approved faith even on their co-religionists. While on Tom Holland’s view it was Christendom that first distinguished the spheres of God and Cæsar, pope and emperor, to the great advantage of the development of the West, we know it suited many Christian leaders through the centuries to blur those lines; the same is so for some believers today. And there are still conceptions of Church and State that recognize no such line even to be blurred. In theocracies, as in secular tyrannies, either religion is in charge of everything or secular politics is, but no compromise between the two is possible.

The year is 2025 – nine years after the plebiscite to redefine marriage was defeated, partly because most Australians still treasured marriage as traditionally understood, partly because they thought government had no business regulating other friendships, partly because they were convinced a mature democracy does not rush into such important decisions and partly because they feared ‘marriage equality’ would make Australians less equal in matters of faith and conscience. Rather than taking the divisive turn proposed back in 2015, other signs of respect for people with same-sex attraction have been embraced by most Australians. Terms like ‘man and wife’ and ‘mother and father’ survive in law and practice, and new measures help support marriages and marriage-based families. A robust but courteous debate continues, but most agree the decade-long exercise of patience and respect in pursuit of a moral consensus in this area has demonstrated democratic maturity and strengthened, not diminished, common life.

My more sanguine 2025 required people back in 2015 to embrace the mission of not only rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure but also renewing its spiritual capital so that it might be visionary, principled and practical, with a right reverence for God and people.

In this 2025 faiths still play a major role in our community as providers of much human and supernatural support, of formation in crucial moral and political values, and as providers of charitable services in education, health and aged care, welfare and the like. Believers feel supported rather than threatened by the state in holding their high ideals and there is healthy dialogue between people of different faiths and between believers and ‘nones’. Australians are proud of their historic ‘compact’ between Church and State, freedom of conscience and the rule of law – all the more so in a world where many countries take a less tolerant direction and whole populations have suffered persecution, exile or death as a result. Most agree we should resist totalizing ideologies that would seriously upset that historical balance. Most want our bakers to be left to bake good cakes, unencumbered by such dogmatism.

My more sanguine 2025 required people back in 2015 to embrace the mission of not only rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure but also renewing its spiritual capital so that it might be visionary, principled and practical, with a right reverence for God and people – to use Pope Francis II’s inherited tests of democratic health. Having and following principles, internally consistent and embraced with passion but also publicly contestable, is not only regarded as epistemically and psychologically defensible but also as socially and politically essential. Forming people in such ideals and giving them confidence in their application was something to which the Church devoted much energy in the intervening decade. Teachers, scholars, lawmakers, commentators and other thoughtful individuals have made important contributions to renewal of our democracy. “Liberty,” as Lord Acton observed, “is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” In the 2010s and 2020s we realized that only by renewing our social-spiritual capital could we ask what that ought is that we should do with our liberty and then be able to do it.

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