For years now, there’s been a small but tight-knit group of ultramontane Catholics at the heart of Australian political life, trying to impose a rigid set of beliefs on the rest of us. Unlike most average Catholics who are after a general experience of spiritual depth and some vague moral precepts, Christopher Pearson, Frank Devine, Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and George Pell are true believers in the literal truth of the word — in a way they have more in common with Islamic fundamentalists than those of us who’ll admit to perplexity at the contemporary world.

This has had real consequences for the welfare of ordinary Australians — Tony Abbott, for example, has used his position as minister of health to fight a desperate rearguard action against Australian women having control over their own fertility.

But what such Catholics hate most is the Uniting Church/WCC/Catholic Worker notion of ‘social justice’. To oversimplify somewhat, they hold the notion to be a basic intellectual error, akin to asking the gender of a bicycle. To do so, they cherry-pick from Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s 1991 statement that gave relatively more emphasis to free trade and worker flexibility than earlier statements.

They’re about to run into trouble, with the 16 April publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s new book Jesus of Nazareth. In it, His Benedictness applies the parable of the Good Samaritan to relations between the First World and Africa — comparing the former not just with those who passed by on the other side, but with those who beat him up.

“If we apply [the story] to the dimensions of globalised society we see how the peoples of Africa, who have been plundered and sacked, see us from close-up,” he wrote. “Our style of life [and] the history in which we are involved has stripped them and continues to strip them.”

The book, extracts of which are in Corriere Della Sera, also praises Marx for giving the best, albeit atheist, picture of the depredations of capitalism.

Yikes! What are the Pope’s downunder divisions going to do? Nothing, of course. They ignore the Pontiff whenever he conflicts with political imperatives — as Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the Iraq war did. It’ll be back to harassing pregnant 17-year-olds before you know it.

Peter Fray

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