Recently Cardinal George Pell called me anti-Christian. He said I was trying to stifle the right of religious people to publicly debate ethical issues.
This is not true and it is disappointing that when the Cardinal came under criticism for aspects of his comments on the stem cell research bill before the New South Wales Parliament his response was to misrepresent the views of those who disagreed with him.
I respect Cardinal Pell's right to express his views. But Cardinal Pell's contribution to the debate was much more than a personal view: he attempted to intimidate or strongarm members of Parliament into voting against the legislation.
That level of intimidation - using religion as leverage to force members to vote in a certain way - is not acceptable. Decisions about complex ethical matters should be based on considered debate not ecclesiastical judgment and threats of retribution.
On June 5 Cardinal Pell stated, “… it is a serious moral matter and Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the church”.
The Cardinal suggested that the “consequences” could mean that Catholic MPs who voted for the stem cell research bill could be refused communion.
My objection to this statement relates solely to Cardinal Pell’s suggestion that he would withhold services to individual members of Parliament.
My request that the President of the NSW Legislative Council ask the Privileges Committee to consider Cardinal Pell's comments was not a move to stifle debate. Cardinal Pell is free to make any comment on the stem cell research bill. Why the Privileges Committee will consider this matter and why so many NSW MPs have criticised Cardinal Pell is because of his reference to “consequences” for Catholic MPs.
When making these allegations against me Cardinal Pell would have been well aware that in Western Australia Perth Archbishop Hickey has been referred to the Privileges Committee of the WA Parliament for making a statement very similar to his own comments about “consequences”.
The WA Speaker Mr Fred Riebeling, in commenting on the Archbishop’s statement said, "He has said he didn't make a threat. I think he's the only person in Australia that doesn't think that."
Although Cardinal Pell has singled me out for specific criticism it is worth noting that there were a number of MPs who used much stronger language than I did. Mr Kevin Greene said that the Cardinal was attempting “to bully Catholic members of Parliament”. Ms Reba Meagher said that he was “threatening retribution”. Ms Jillian Skinner stated, "I have been subjected to the pressure of this man".
Mr Nathan Rees commented “Cardinal Pell has overreached on this issue and he is out of step with every lay Catholic … I believe he owes the Catholic members of this Parliament an apology … I think Cardinal Pell has three options: he can apologise, he can run for Parliament or he can invite further comparisons with that serial boofhead Sheik Al Hilali.”
Some commentators have said that Cardinal Pell is criticised only when he defends church teachings and that no-one complained when he criticised WorkChoices.
For the record, if the Cardinal had threatened to withhold communion from members of Parliament who refused to vote against the WorkChoices legislation I - and I am sure many, many others - would have voiced criticism. I am also certain that if such an extreme statement was made it would have been referred to the Privileges Committee.
Muscular Catholicism does nothing to enhance the worthwhile principles that many Catholics hold and bring to this debate.
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