Julian Porteous, the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, has written an article in Murdoch’s The Australian (where else?) entitled ‘Protect our religious freedom, for goodness sake’1. He begins with an exposition of the history of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and includes the content of Article 18 in his essay2. This Article states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Porteous then goes on to speak of the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has not yet been ratified by the Australian government. That Covenant includes, as part of Article 18, Section 1, the same paragraph as the above declaration3. Porteous maintains that numerous parliamentary inquiries into human rights protections have pointed out that of all the most basic rights it is religious freedom that has received the least legal protection1. Indeed, one parliamentary inquiry did recommend a religious freedom act which would make discrimination and vilification on the ground of religion and belief unlawful. It also affirmed the right of all religions and organised beliefs, as defined, to exist and to organise and determine their own affairs within the law and according to their tenets. It also noted that for the purposes of the act, ‘religion and belief’ should be given a wide meaning, covering the broad spectrum of personal convictions and matters of conscience4. So, belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be suitably protected.
Then Porteous gets a little economical with the truth. He states for “simply circulating Catholic teaching to members of the Catholic community in Tasmania (one of the fundamental roles of a bishop) I was called to answer before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner as possibly being in breach of the law”. In fact, Porteous was nailed for stating that same-sex marriage was “messing with kids” implying some sort of criminal activity; it is that which was at issue5. The irony is that those wishing to get married to a person of the same sex, are less likely to ‘mess with kids’ than some of those in the church.
Then Porteous moves into the Ramsay Centre ‘where would we be without Christianity’ mode of promotion of western civilisation6, and how it is only “a good for society and something that must be protected in light of the contribution it has made and continues to make to society”. Coupled with this are the constant wars, bigotry, discrimination, sexual and other abuse of children, and their constant insistence on imposing their beliefs on others.
Porteous asserts that there are increasing attacks on individuals of religious faith and their religious organisations simply for expressing their deeply held beliefs in a respectful way. This made me laugh, especially as it was in the same paragraph as a reference to poor Israel Folau, who so respectfully said that homosexuals were bound for hell7. While it is laughable for normal people who realise that hell does not exist, I cannot guess how it would have affected a homosexual kid who thinks it does exist. Porteous states that Folau was only “citing teachings from the Bible” as if this make it acceptable. There are also lots of other silly, disgraceful and murderous rubbish in the Bible which most Christians now tend to ignore. These include:
Dwarfs, or those with scoliosis cannot go to church (Leviticus 21: 17-23); A rebellious son should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21); Eating shellfish or crustaceans is forbidden (Leviticus 9: 10); Eating fat is forbidden (Leviticus 3: 17); Never wear a mixture of linen and wool (Leviticus 19: 19); Tattoos are forbidden (Leviticus 19: 28); Coitus interruptus is punishable by death (Genesis 38: 9-10); Kill others of different religions (Deuteronomy 17:2-7)8
One wonders if Folau would have been supported by the ultraright commentariat if he has espoused the last of these, given that it is simply another ‘teachings from the Bible’. Porteous bemoans the fact that Folau was given the boot by Rugby Australia. However, many of the proposals for the religious freedom act now under discussion by the government are concerned solely about the ability to discriminate against people on the basis of sexuality, gender or relationship status; the very same people who Folau bleated about. I suppose it could be worse; they could insist on stoning rebellious children to death.
Porteous says he is not calling for a bill of rights, probably because one of those crafted in this century would undoubtedly make illegal the sort of discrimination so desperately desired by Porteous, and that would never do for the church. None of this diatribe by Porteous is really about religious freedom because that is guaranteed in Section 116 of the Constitution where it says: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth”9. Porteous states that society suffers when religious voices are silences, the irony of his diatribe being published in a national newspaper seemingly lost on him. He is not really concerned about being silenced but about being ignored, which for someone so dependent on being heeded, is a far worse fate.
Porteous polished off his diatribe with the assertion that it was the Christian churches who stood up against totalitarian governments and their oppression1. This is another case of Porteous being economical with the truth. In 1933, nearly 40% of Germany’s population was Catholic. As a minority, Catholics always felt vulnerable to accusations that they were not ‘true Germans’ and that they took orders from Rome. They had protected their rights by organising the Catholic Centre Party, but as the Nazi Party outlawed opposition political parties, they found themselves without that influence. Opinion was varied among the Catholic leadership; with some welcoming the Nazis as a counter to ‘atheistic communism’, while others who opposed them were fearful of attacks on priests and nuns. The latter concern prompted the Vatican to discuss with the Nazis the possibility of an agreement: the Church would abstain from political activity in exchange for a promise not to persecute the Catholic Church. In July of 1933, Hitler and Pope Pius XI signed a concordat to guarantee the rights of the church10. This was Hitler’s first ‘international’ agreement and enhanced his respectability in Germany and abroad, as a ‘great moral authority’ (really?) had trusted his word. Of course, the Nazis did not honour the concordat, and regularly violated it by closing down Catholic organisations, confiscating church property, pressuring Catholic newspapers, imprisoning or murdering clergy and other church leaders. Despite this, the pope did not criticise the Nazis until 1937, some four years later. By then it was too late; the Catholic opposition was limited to a few isolated individuals who could easily be silenced10. That doesn’t sound like the church “standing up” to Hitler to me.
Porteous implies that the Catholic Church fought heroically against Mussolini’s fascists during the latter’s rule from the early 1920s, but recently released archives tell a different story. Pope Pius XI cooperated with Mussolini for more than a decade, lending his regime moral legitimacy and organisational strength. Indeed, fascist rallies usually began with a morning mass celebrated by a priest. Mussolini also ingratiated himself with the church by allowing it to provide chaplains to all chapters of fascist youth groups, and he also imposed the teaching of religion in elementary schools and later extending that to secondary schools. As the Second World War approached and Mussolini began persecuting Italy’s Jewish population, Pius XI regretted his bargain, and considered making a public break with the regime, but never did11. That doesn’t sound like “standing up” to Mussolini to me.
Back in 1931, in Spain, the Second Republic was ruled by a very progressive government which reformed the public school system (opposed by the church), introduced land reforms (opposed by large landowners including the church), instituted social security reforms (opposed by big business), established women’s suffrage, introduced labour rights (opposed by big business), and established divorce law and the right to abortion (opposed by the church). In 1936 an alliance of left-wing and centrist parties (the Popular Front) was elected to government with a programme to extend the progressive reforms of the Second Republic. Months later, all the regressive forces whose privileges had been curtailed by the Second Republic and were threatened by the Popular Front, came together to instigate a military coup, led by the third European fascist leader, Francisco Franco, and enthusiastically supported by the Catholic Church. In this they were supported by Hitler and Mussolini, with almost acquiescence by many western powers, whose business and upper classes feared the left-wing reforms might catch on in their countries. In Franco’s first 5 years, some 200,000 people were assassinated. All this was done with the active involvement of the Catholic Church. In every village, town and city, it was the Spanish Church hierarchy and the priests who prepared the lists of people to be executed. A primary target of the repression was teachers, who were considered to be enemies of state as well as the church. Franco remained in power from 1939 until his death in 1975. The executions didn’t stop, until a few months before his death12. That doesn’t sound like “standing up” to Franco to me.
So, for Porteous to end his diatribe by saying his church stood up to totalitarian regimes is simply disingenuous. However, given the behaviour of his church in covering up child abuse and in spreading lies during the same-sex marriage campaign, it is unsurprising. What the Catholic Church is most concerned about is losing its power, such that it will do anything to try to maintain it.
- Porteous, J., 2019. Protect our religious freedom, for goodness sake. August 23.