It was a much smaller group than paid to hear Mark Steyn a couple of weeks ago, but those who turned up at Melbourne’s Institute of Public Affairs last night not only got their food and drink for free, but got more intellectual nourishment than Steyn would have provided.

Tony Staley, Tony Abbott and Peter Coleman all spoke to launch the reprint of Coleman’s biography of poet and Catholic activist James McAuley, The Heart of James McAuley (Connor Court publishing). Not surprisingly, media comment has focused on Abbott’s contribution; The Australian provides an excerpt this morning, while The Age reports it as news.

But what was newsworthy was not anything Abbott said, but simply the fact that a federal minister can hold his own in a serious intellectual discussion. I should say that I think Abbott’s worldview is spectacularly mistaken. He says that his ethical positions do not depend on religion, even though only religious people hold them (ever seen an atheist right-to-lifer?); he says that his opponents are opposed to the idea of truth just because they do not agree with his “truth”.

But there is an intellectual, even humanistic core to traditional Catholic scholarship, and Abbott showed his command of it in impressive fashion. It’s hard to see any of his ministerial colleagues putting on such a performance. Most of them would be intensely uncomfortable in such an environment; they gladly cheer Steyn’s fevered rantings, but to debate ideas rather than prejudices is beyond them.

Nonetheless, it’s important to point out how selective Abbott’s history is. Yes, the Catholic church tolerated humanists like Erasmus and More, but it persecuted many others, and for centuries it fought scientific and political progress every step of the way. In the last century, the Catholic political movement of which McAuley was a part gave aid and comfort to the fascist regimes that dragged Europe back to barbarism.

And just today it is reported that the Pope’s advisers are scheming to revisit the church’s backing of evolution, opening the door to support for the madness of creationism.