That a lobbyist should hint at threats in private rather than make them directly in public is a lesson that Catholic Cardinal George Pell should learn from the overwhelming rejection of his bullying tactics by members of the NSW Legislative Assembly just after noon today. The NSW House overwhelmingly passed legislation to allow an expansion of stem cell research.

The majority vote of 65 included many Catholic MPs, including the Premier Morris Iemma, who ignored the threat by the Cardinal that action would be taken against supporters. There were only 26 votes against the bill which mirrors laws passed earlier this year by the federal Parliamen allowing somatic cell nuclear transfer, in which an egg cell nucleus is removed and replaced with a donor nucleus, eventually forming an early embryo with DNA almost identical to the donor organism.

“It is a serious moral matter”, is how Cardinal Pell put his threat at a televised press conference, “and politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the church.” The interpretation by journalists that the “consequences” would be banning wayward MPs from taking communion was not corrected by the Sydney arch-diocese.

Cardinal Pell now finds himself in the position where he must, as we say, put up or shut up. If he takes no action, future moral lectures by him to politicians will not be taken seriously. Should he carry through with threatened punishment he faces the danger of involving the Catholic Church once again in sectarian controversy.

It was less than 50 years ago, remember, that Catholic politicians in Australia, like John F. Kennedy in the United States, were treated with suspicion by many non-Catholics because of the notion that their first responsibility was to a foreign pope rather than to their native country. There has been more than a trace of this sentiment in the public reaction to Cardinal Pell’s comments already and it will grow if action is really taken.

There are already some signs that the Cardinal might be regretting his outspokenness. The statement “No Catholic could in good conscience vote for Cloning Bill – NSW Bishops” on the official website of the archdiocese does not contain the threat as spoken on television.

Instead if says simply that “No Catholic politician – indeed, no Christian or person with respect for human life – who has properly informed his conscience about the facts and ethics in this area should vote in favour of this immoral legislation.”