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Christian churches drifting too far from the marketplace of ideas

by Greg Sheridan

Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.

The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.

The public position of Australia’s increasingly aggressive secular culture — that God is dead — is an eccentric view for any society to hold at any time in human history. All over Africa, Asia and much of South America, religion — Christianity but also the other big religions — is booming.

Whether the human propensity to believe presupposes the existence of something to believe in or not, religious belief is dynamic, protean and passionately alive.

Not in Australia, though. In Western Europe, on the east and west coasts of the US, and in Australia, the new religion of aggressive secularism is on the rise, more self-confident and fundamentalist than ever.

Widespread, prolonged affluence has been more effective than oppression ever was in killing religious belief and practice. To take one figure almost at random, in 1954, 74 per cent of Australian Cath­olics attended mass each Sunday. Today the figure is substantially less than 10 per cent.

The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.

They remind me of South Vietnam’s government in 1974. It over-estimated its strength and tried to hang on to all of its territory, including the long narrow neck of its north. It did not retreat to its formidable heartland in the south, which would have been vastly more defensible. Had it done so, it might have survived. Instead, the next year, the armoured divisions of North Vietnam invaded and Saigon lost everything.

Across the past 120 years, the Christian churches in Europe and Australia have lost every significant, long-term battle about social norms and legal measures to underpin them.

Consider just a few: birth control, no-fault divorce, abortion, Sunday trading, blasphemy, film and television standards, same-sex adoption and soon same-sex marriage, and no doubt euthanasia and much else. On some of these issues it was right that the churches lost. In these 120 years no victory was ever more than a temporary slowdown in secularism. While there seemed to be many tactical wins, the war was lost. In each case, the church misunderstood the extent and nature of its support and the long-term threat it faced.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

Take two examples. Abortion in some Australian states is still technically illegal, but the law has no force.

On same-sex relationships, once the society accepts that same-sex couples can have and raise children, the question of the marriage law is academic, almost meaningless, except in two respects. One is that it seems gratuitous and perverse and even cruel to deny children living with same- sex parents the protections of legal marriage. And two, the change in the Marriage Act, while not affecting the reality of marriage itself, could well devastate religious freedom.

It is on that ground that the churches should make a vigorous and unyielding stand.

The real danger now is the increasingly frequent direct attacks on religious freedoms. The Greens have called for an end to the exemption for religious bodies from the operation of anti-discrimination laws. This is a direct assault on religious freedom and indeed freedom of association. Christian schools would not be able to insist on hiring Christian teachers.

Yet no one imposes such restrictions on other bodies, such as political parties. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is not required to offer equality of employment opportunities to Liberal Party members when he hires a press secretary.

The aggressive secularism of public culture has become increasingly a state religion in itself and will use the coercive powers of the state to enforce its new orthodoxy. Thus Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner was willing to hear a complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart for circulating a pamphlet of the Australian bishops entitled Don’t Mess with Marriage.

People should read this document. You could not imagine a more temperate, mild and respectful stating of the traditional Catholic view of marriage as being between a man and a woman. It stresses the inalienable dignity and respect with which every human being should be treated and opposes any discrimination against gay people. But in its view marriage is between a man and a woman.

The complaint was eventually withdrawn. But the fact it was entertained at all is a sure sign of the future. The process itself is the punishment. The process is designed to intimidate. Soon, apparently, it will be positively illegal for Christian churches to publish their traditional teachings.

The intolerance of Australia’s secular religion, which adds to legal harassment the effective tactic of ridicule and endless public abuse, is evident.

Will Christian schools be allowed to teach their traditional beliefs?

The Safe Schools program, which goes far beyond anti-bullying and promotes a positive and bizarre ideology of gender fluidity, is offensive to the values of hundreds of thousands of Christian and other parents of children in state schools. Will their human rights to be unmolested by this ridiculous program be honoured? Apparently not, as the Andrews government intends to make it compulsory in Victorian schools.

Will there ultimately be funding coercion for the state’s religious schools to adopt the program as well?

If the churches saw themselves as a strong minority with clear values under attack they might respond differently.

A robust archbishop leading a self-confident community that believed in its future might respond to the attack on Don’t Mess with Marriage by finding the most public square available in Hobart and reading the document out in full, then instructing all the priests in his diocese to read it from the pulpit on Sunday.

Would the commission prosecute them all?

Such actions are alien to Australian Christian leaders. The established churches are gentle institutions in a long, gentle decline. The Anglican Church in England shows the way. It has hung on to its status as the established church. Its bishops still sit in the House of Lords. It owns some of the most splendid buildings in Europe and is associated with the most prestigious institutions of its nation. It would say that it is involved in a respectful dialogue with contemporary society. Yet barely 700,000 English Anglicans, a trace over 1 per cent of the population, go to church on Sundays. It is dying.

Consider the paradox of the average Catholic parish in Australia. It has an empty church and a full school. Whereas once the passion and commitment of the Catholic Church gave life to these institutions — schools, hospitals, hos­pices, teachers’ colleges, care facilities — now it is the other way round. Now the reputation of these institutions, and the money they get from the state, gives what few resources remain for the church.

These institutions were built on the dedication of laypeople who sacrificed a big portion of meagre incomes, and on the unpaid labour of religious nuns and brothers. Many such institutions were and are magnificent, on any measure, human or divine, and deserve to be valued, not least by the church.

But increasingly there is only a ghost of the spirituality that once defined them. They live still off the moral capital they built up but increasingly they are just another secular institution, with the thinnest veneer of church association. The normative values they impart are ever more anaemic.

A big part of the problem is that the churches don’t produce social leaders with any media profile, any traction. Catholic bishops retire at 75. Mostly they have spent their lives studying theology and internally administering Catholic institutions. They are understandably allergic to corporate strategies, marketing, media training.

As a result, they grievously handicap themselves and their church. Their position is illogical. A Catholic hospital doesn’t continue the methods of 200 years ago. It uses the best contemporary technology. Yet bishops eschew all contemporary understanding of communications. Their quiet authority worked when the church was universally respected. It doesn’t work now. If they want to communicate their church’s message they need to participate vigorously in the marketplace of ideas. So far, with few exceptions, they have been hopeless at this.

The terrible sex abuse scandals have played their part. There is no defence of these awful abuses. Anyone guilty of them deserves the maximum prosecution. The truth is that almost every institution in society that had unsupervised power over children had these historic abuse problems, which only came to light much later.

The militant secular consensus has used this scandal to chase the Catholic Church out of public life. The case in point is Cardinal ­George Pell. He has been subject to ridiculous levels of calumny and abuse. He has given more than twice the length of testimony to the royal commission of anyone else, though he is not actually accused of any wrongdoing himself. A man now in his mid-70s, he naturally said some awkward and even stupid things in the countless hours of testimony he gave, as anyone would.

The destruction of Pell has been a mighty victory for the aggressive new state religion of secularism. For Pell was the most important Catholic Church leader since Daniel Mannix, the only one of the bishops who vigorously and happily engaged the society in broad debate. Like Mannix, he was careful to distinguish what he said in the pulpit, which was only religious, from his contributions on countless debates, from the republic to the Iraq war to refugees to climate change and to much, much else.

The systematic personal vilification of Pell surely serves as a warning to keep all other bishops timid and quiet. The great hope of the side was the new Sydney Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, but he has been struck with terrible illness. With the partial exception of the Brisbane Archbishop, Mark Coleridge, there are no other self- confident Catholic leaders who can operate effectively in the public square.

I grew up reading the great Catholic literature of the first half of the 20th century — Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, GK Chesterton, Henry Morton Robinson. This past year or so, in furtherance of a book of my own, I have attended a half-dozen big writers festivals. There was not a single book or writer I came across who wrote from a distinctively Christian perspective. It doesn’t matter whose fault this is, the churches are disappearing from popular and elite culture.

Here is a final challenge. In much of Waugh and Greene, the plots pivot on divorce. A Catholic deserted or betrayed by a wicked spouse falls in love with a good person whom they cannot marry because of fidelity to the church’s teaching that when you promise to marry someone for life, that’s what you actually mean.

Many Catholics and other Christians followed these demanding strictures in real life. As recently as 1983 Bob Hawke judged the Australian people would not accept a divorced prime minister. But now Catholics and other Christians divorce as often as everyone else.

If the churches cannot get their own members to follow their basic strictures, they should not demand that the state do their job for them.

The churches are in crisis now on all fronts, with poor situational awareness. Genteel decline and increased legislative circumscription await them unless they reconfigure themselves as a bold, vigorous, self-confident minority, determined to secure their minority rights and to have their say on life and its purpose, come hell or high water.