What’s a Catholic to Do?

“If you allow this toxic combination of religion and politics to become too closely entwined, then you’re in trouble.” In her recent Lunchbox/Soapbox, Dr Susan Mitchell spoke on the topic of her newly-released polemic on opposition leader Tony Abbott, Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man (watch the video). She explored at some length the influence of the Catholic Church on the man many are inking in as a shoe-in for prime minister following the next election. Tony Abbott, Mitchell argued, “has allowed religion and politics to become entwined.” Indeed, if Abbott were to become prime minister, he would be the first practising Catholic prime minister of Australia from the conservative side of politics (there have been, by our count, three on the Labor side: James Scullin, Joseph Lyons and Ben Chifley).

Mitchell, adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at Flinders University, a radio and television broadcaster, and a former opinion and humour writer for The Australian, presented Tony Abbott as a man who sees things in black and white. She attributed this to his Catholic faith, listing key Catholic mentors in Abbott’s youth. Father Emmett Costello, a Jesuit priest in Sydney’s Riverview College, trained Abbott in Churchillian rhetoric and encouraged him to enter politics. At university, Abbott was a protégé of B.A. Santamaria, an influential anti-Communist journalist and Catholic activist who believed the Church should instruct Australians how to vote and, Mitchell contends, taught Abbott that “politics is a way to give glory to God in the human sphere”. Another Jesuit priest at Oxford University encouraged Abbott to take up boxing. At the age of 26, Abbott chose to enter St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly. He later discontinued his religious studies and became a journalist, writing for The Catholic Weekly for a time.

While Tony Abbott has never shied away from acknowledging the importance of the Catholic Church to him as a person and as a politician, he is nevertheless capable of having a foot in both camps (Church and state) when the situation requires it. How does he justify this? In a speech he gave in 2004 to the Adelaide University Democratic Club decrying the annual number of women having abortions, he had this to say on how Christian politicians should juggle their responsibilities to Church and state.

“Despite the debt that political institutions owe to the West’s Christian heritage, there is the constant claim that Christians in politics are confused about the separation of church and state. There’s also a tendency among Christians in the community to think that Christians in politics have to sell out their principles in order to survive. Christian politicians are often warding off simultaneous accusations that they are zealots or fakes. Indeed, the public caricature of a Christian politician is hypocrite or wuss, in denial about the ruthlessness and expediency necessary to wield power, or too sanctimonious to be effective … Christians are not required to right every wrong. Christian politicians are not required to promote policies for which there is no demand in the community.”

The next Intelligence Squared debate on 15 November at the Melbourne Town Hall will debate the proposition, ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world’.

(Click to watch video.)

(Click to watch video.)

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