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Pell and the pollies

By Alex Perrottet - posted Friday, 8 June 2007

A few Catholic politicians are currently at loggerheads with Cardinal Pell over their intentions to back the Bill (PDF 392KB) expanding stem cell research. They argue that the Church should keep out of politics. It seems the nosy Cardinal has once again overstepped the line between Church and State.

But Pell is simply talking about his Church and some of its members. His actions do not imply any intention of venturing into politics.

Pell says that those individuals who are Catholic need to think about their commitment to the Church if they are going to take decisions that are contrary to Church teaching. He said nothing about politics.


He is not trying to influence decisions of Parliament; he is offering a reminder to Catholics of very clear Catholic teaching. Those politicians are free to act how they like. They can and should act according to their conscience, but Pell is reminding them that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. In other words, don’t smear the Church by publicising your wayward choices as a known Catholic.

As one contributor to a blog on the Sydney Morning Herald site said: “I am a Roman Catholic. I don’t belong to the Nazi Party because, well quite simply, I don’t believe in what they teach. Simple.”

No one is forced to join or stay as a member of the Catholic Church, but those who do are reminded that they shouldn’t speak out against it, or make public policy decisions that contravene its teachings, and then assume the Church will back them up.

Now I can hear many voices in response calling out about politicians and their religious beliefs influencing conscience votes. Why should we as the Australian public be subject to these God-botherers?

While the conscience is a crucially important aspect of the human person for Catholics, and indeed most people, Catholics believe that the conscience is a compass that points towards the good. It needs to be calibrated, to be aligned properly for it to work well, because the good is like the sun - it’s always in the same place. The variable is us and even when we think we are right, we can be pointing in the opposite direction to where the sun is.

Catholics who deny basic tenets of their faith do not have very well-formed consciences. Now you can argue with that, find it reprehensible or shocking, but that is what Catholics believe. When one considers all the influences over our own consciences through life, are the teachings of the longest-running institution, which has had some of history’s greatest minds at its helm such a bad influence?


Once again, let me clarify: there is complete freedom about people acting on conscience. Everyone is encouraged to do what they think and feel is right. A warning from a Cardinal that certain action is contrary to Church teaching might be a good indicator to a Catholic about the right action, but the politician remains free. The Cardinal is protecting his doctrine, not projecting it onto society.

Further, how can people demand that a Catholic Parliamentarian cannot make decisions based on his conscience, which is informed by his faith? Consider briefly what your values are based on. If you are not religious, do you consider that your moral compass is better aligned than those of Catholics?

Does every Parliamentarian with religious beliefs have to put those aside when making decisions, while the “enlightened” irreligious ones are free to decide based on their better-informed consciences?

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About the Author

Alex Perrottet is an Australian journalist currently working in New Zealand.

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