By Paul Gray
Australia’s most senior church leader has spoken out against a national charter of rights, in a landmark speech praising the role of parliaments and warning against rule by “relativist” judges.
The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, said in a Brisbane Institute speech that religious liberty in Australia could be under threat from the charter of rights proposal, which was endorsed at Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit in April.
The cardinal warned that involuntary euthanasia and compulsory eugenics are two dangers to human life which may soon emerge because of bio-technology, and the church’s ability to fight against these evils could be compromised by a rights charter.
Cardinal Pell said supporters of a charter of rights regularly point to Britain’s Human Rights Act as a model to be adopted by Australia. But he said the British experience shows that would be a mistake.
In a case typifying the dangers to religious free speech, a pro-life campaigner in Britain, Mrs Veronica Connolly, was convicted of infringing the rights of others when she mailed “offensive” photographs of aborted fetuses to pharmacies selling the morning-after pill.
Mrs Connolly appealed to Britain’s highest court, claiming her nation’s Human Rights Act guaranteed her a right to free speech on this issue. But the court ruled against her, instead finding that the “distress and anxiety” caused to those who saw the photos was a violation of their rights.
The case, Cardinal Pell said, “shows how little protection religious people can expect from anything like the UK Human Rights Act if it were to be implemented in Australia.”
As well as commenting on recent cases, Cardinal Pell’s speech addressed the underlying moral and philosophical questions which are at stake in the charter of rights debate.
He said there are four “fictions” which dominate discussion about the rights question in Australian political debate today.
These “fictions” include the common belief that human rights are a matter of moral beliefs, or consensus, rather than of moral truth.
Cardinal Pell said the scholar John Finnis drew attention to this problem nearly three decades ago. Finnis argued that in modern times, lawmakers had rejected “natural law” as the basis for legal decisions, turning instead to the idea of a “moral consensus” in society.
This has led to the creation of “new rights,” Cardinal Pell said, such as rights to abortion, euthanasia and the cloning and destruction of human life for research purposes.
Though popular with society’s political and legal elites, the “moral consensus” approach is dangerous even for them, Cardinal Pell stated.
Political and legal elites in Australia are only at ease with the approach because they assume they will always be in charge of it, but this is not guaranteed.
“This is one of the reasons for the despair and panic that was discernible in some places when very different, deeply held and widespread moral beliefs about limiting the rights of asylum seekers came to the fore in 2001 and seemed poised to take the ‘consensus’ on rights in a different direction,” the Cardinal said.
Three other fictions that clutter the rights debate in Australia, Cardinal Pell says, are:
THE idea that courts are simply following the law when in fact they are “legislating without opposition on fundamental questions”
THE idea that courts are forums of principle while parliament, the elected body of the people, is merely “a forum of political power,” and
THE idea that decisions made by majority vote, such as parliamentary elections, automatically mean that the rights of minorities are excluded.
In fact, argued Cardinal Pell, principle is particularly important in parliamentary decision-making on fundamental issues.
This has been demonstrated by parliamentary debates in recent years over refugees and asylum-seekers, RU-486 and cloning and euthanasia, he said.
Cardinal Pell said the present “gay marriage” push is one example of a minority increasingly getting its way through legal activism rather than through majority votes.
One legal academic has claimed the heterosexual majority is using majority power to impose their understanding of marriage (as heterosexual) on the homosexual minority. This is a deliberate distortion of the truth, Cardinal Pell says.
In fact, “a minority of the homosexual minority are actively seeking to impose their redefinition of marriage on the rest of the population through spurious rights-claims and judicial fiat.”