First of all, let’s get one thing right. Separation of Church and State does not mean that the Catholic Church (or any Church for that matter) cannot comment on proposed legislation or government policy or seek to provide guidance for their members. It simply means that Australia has no established religion (ie. no official religion and no religion funded by the state).

Secondly, Pell was right to warn Catholic politicians that they risk stepping outside of the bounds of the teachings of the Church with all the attendant consequences that course of action entails if they voted for the stem cell bill.

Catholics are not an ethnic group. You don’t get born a Catholic. No one forces you to be a Catholic. You choose to be a Catholic. This choice is formalised through two sacraments. The first is baptism where your parents usually make that choice for you. The second is Confirmation where you confirm the decision of your parents and actively and formally choose to remain a Catholic. In reality, as Catholics, we make that choice every day as we are confronted with life’s options and complexities.

As Catholic politicians, our spiritual lives are further complicated because we are responsible for doing the right thing, not just by our children, and ourselves but by a whole society. As Catholics, we believe that there is a moral dimension to some legislation and government policy. This is a public choice we face and it is not easy. It is one of the reasons I admire Tony Abbott and others so much.

This has the potential to put us at odds with our Church. Catholics believe that at Communion they receive the actual body of Christ. Before we do this we need to be prepared. We cannot be in a state of Mortal (Serious) sin. Normally when a Catholic presents at Communion, the Priest has little or no way of knowing the state of grace of the individual involved. However when an individual declares that they are in fact not in conformity with the teachings of the church — such as by voting for a bill like the stem cell bill — the Priest is obliged to protect the Body of Christ and the integrity of the teachings of the Church by withholding communion.

Pell was merely telling Catholic politicians that they were in danger of stepping outside of the teachings of the church and that logically, there must be consequences if they chose that course of action. Pell was doing the right thing when he warned Catholics in the NSW parliament of their obligations. If they choose to step outside the rules and teachings of the Church, that is a matter for them, but they should be clear about what they are doing and thanks to Pell, they were.

The Catholic Church has a democratic right to put its views on legislation to the wider community. In fact, I wish it would do it more often and more forcefully. But it has an obligation to inform its members of its teachings and the consequences for choosing not to follow those teaching.

Sheik Al Hilaly essentially said that because women dressed a certain way, men who might rape them had some sort of excuse for doing the wrong thing. George Pell on the other hand simply said: “Do the right thing”. That is why I admire George Pell.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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