First published by The Australian Independent Media Network (21/10/2013).
Now that the dust has settled and Tony Abbott is our Prime Minister, there is renewed interest in his relationship with the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell and some speculation as to how that relationship will develop given that Pell is the man Tony Abbott regards as his spiritual advisor. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that Cardinal Pell would regard Abbott as a supporter of Catholic dogma and willing to uphold Catholic teaching across a range of sensitive, social issues. It is therefore reasonable to ask how we, the voters, can be assured that Cardinal Pell is not going to become a silent partner in running the country and that Tony Abbott won’t become his lapdog.
The Church in Australia is desperate to regain some of its dwindling influence. Sixty years ago, in pre Vatican II times, 75% of Catholics attended church regularly. Today, that figure has slumped to just 13%. Today, just 5% of Australians are practicing Catholics. That figure renders Cardinal Pell’s job of placing Catholic teaching high on the list of political issues almost impossible. Issues such as contraception, euthanasia and gay marriage are a matter of non-negotiable Catholic dogma, contrasting starkly with an increasingly secular Australia which has long since moved in the opposite direction. The forum of public opinion would suggest these issues are private and best decided by those involved. The Church, however, would have government uphold what it regards as Catholic teaching. Tony Abbott is a practicing Catholic and heavily influenced by Cardinal Pell. So where does this leave Abbott?
Cardinal George Pell has clear and concise alternatives to the preferences of an increasingly secular world but he struggles to present then in a way that is palatable. His policies which come from the Vatican are not the policies that most Australians would tolerate. While we know Abbott takes political advice from another mentor, John Howard, what we don’t know, is how much spiritual advice he takes from George Pell. We accept that the advice he receives from John Howard is specific to the issues of political success. We can make a considered judgement about that. What we don’t know and therefore are unable to judge, is whether the advice he receives from George Pell is specific to our interests or to the temporal interests of the Catholic Church and the success of George Pell’s agenda for Australia.
Lately, Cardinal George Pell is showing all the signs of a man who just doesn’t get it. His press conference on November 15th 2012 following the announcement by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse was ample evidence of a man who had lost touch with reality. Pell’s main concern seemed to be that the Catholic Church was a victim of a media smear campaign. He seems to think that claims against paedophile priests are exaggerated. (Ref 6). His performance at that press conference was arrogant and half hearted to say the least.
Pell also has his detractors inside the church. Retired Bishop, Geoffrey Robinson recently said of him, “He’s not a team player, he never has been.” On the question of priests breaking the confessional seal to expose child sex abuse, Robinson added, “On this subject too, he’s not consulting with anyone else; he’s simply doing his own thing. I have to say, that on this subject, he’s a great embarrassment to me and to a lot of good Catholic people” (Ref 3). To his credit, Abbott distanced himself from Pell on the issue of the confessional seal when he made his position clear on priests’ responsibilities in this matter. “If they become aware of sexual offences against children, those legal requirements must be adhered to. The law is no respecter of persons, everyone has to obey the law, regardless of what job they are doing, what position they hold,” he said. (Ref 6)
But now that Abbott is prime minister we are entitled to know on what side of the spiritual fence he sits. To say he is highly conservative and would not support gay marriage or drug law reform is obvious. But on what grounds does he not support these issues? To what extent are his views subject to Catholic teaching? His plagiarising of old hat references such as Sir Robert Menzies’ “faceless men” and John Howard’s “ticker” and “who do you trust” and his call for the now Labor opposition to “repent” on the issue of the carbon tax demonstrate his lack of originality and his attachment, even reliance, on those he sees as his mentors and those to whom he looks for advice. Cardinal Pell is one such mentor. Pell’s conservative Catholic views are well known, not so Abbott’s. We are entitled to know what might be behind some of his policy preferences and in what way Pell has influence over him. When one looks closely one can detect some behavioural aspects that give us some clues.
Abbott’s callous comment ‘shit happens’ in reference to soldiers dying in Afghanistan (Ref 5) tells its own story. It demonstrates a lack of empathy with those about whom he makes such a reference. Let us not forget that he did it once before in reference to the now deceased champion of the James Hardie asbestos campaign, Bernie Banton (Ref 4). The Catholic Church displays a staggering lack of empathy across a range of social issues, not the least of which has been its attitude to the victims of sexual abuse by the clergy and to the use of condoms in AIDS ravaged Africa.
In Parliament Abbott attempts to sound scholarly as does Pell when speaking from the pulpit, but when in the arena of the real world, Pell struggles when constantly interrupted and Abbott sounds robotic when reduced to the fifteen second time bite. He succumbs to metaphors and superficial comments that lack any real substance or meaning. Interestingly, both platforms have seen Abbott uttering some frightful gaffes about women.
Tony Abbott adds to the dilemma with his seemingly confused understanding of what is and is not, Christian. In one blunder concerning the boat people, Abbott said:
“I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door . . . I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way . . . If you pay a people-smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that’s doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it.”
Human Rights activist, Julian Burnside commented:
“It is not surprising that Mr Abbott has a view about the moral dimension of refugee issues.
What is striking is that Mr Abbott could get the matter so spectacularly wrong, both as to the facts and as to the moral equation” (Ref 7).
Abbott’s comments that we are rolling out the red carpet for asylum seekers by releasing them into community detention (2), sends us a mixed message. Such comments appear, on the surface, to fly in the face of Christian compassion, therefore we can assume it is a political ploy; a vote winner. One might have thought that a devout Christian like Abbott would be more sympathetic. He conveniently fails to acknowledge the financial benefits that come with such a policy and appears to have no regard for the psychological damage done to those who remain in detention centres. However, all of that is secondary, it would seem, to the image that “rolling out the red carpet” conjures up in the minds of those who have been paralysed by the fear campaign his mentor John Howard began. Metaphorically speaking, the Catholic Church likes locking up people too; not their bodies but their minds. Their idea of a perfect world is to have everyone faithfully observing the teachings of ‘the one true church.’ One wonders if Tony Abbott’s liking for mandatory detention is the manifestation of a similar theology.
On the treatment of women there are other behavioural signs. It is easy to think the church has a fear of women especially if you were raised Catholic. Over many centuries of a male dominated hierarchy within the church, certain attitudes of superiority over women developed which church leaders conveniently allowed to be incorporated within its plethora of Mysteries. This eliminated the need for a detailed explanation. For them, the threat of women ever usurping the dominance of the male role was countered by excluding them, then de-valuing them. One could argue that they did this because they were afraid of them.
Tony Abbott’s foot-in-mouth tendency, his apparent brain-snap comments when dealing with women’s issues, might easily be accounted for when one factors in his close association with, and commitment to, Catholic Church teaching. The Church doesn’t teach fear of women, but it is implied in much of its dogma. It’s refusal to ordain women as priests and its refusal to permit priests to marry (unless you’re a married Anglican priest and want to defect to Rome) betray its attitude to women quite clearly. Its insistence that all sexual intercourse must be open to the creation of life is another put-down teaching that places the primary role of women as child bearers before anything else. Abbott’s foot-in-mouth comment about the previous Labor government’s lack of experience in raising children (Ref 8) also betrays this Catholic Church mindset.
So what is Tony Abbott’s theology? And what has shaped his Machiavellian view and perhaps we should ask who is encouraging him? Each one of us, particularly that twenty five percent of Australians who claim to be Atheist (Ref 1) need to know what drives him when deciding how his values and particularly his religious convictions will impact upon us. And, should we also ask: does he view his own agenda within the corridors of power as more important than that of serving the best interests of the citizens of Australia.
2. Canberra Times, 18/02/2012, Kirsty Needham.