The text: Pell spells out ascendancy of new currents of anti-Christian intolerance

18 Mar 2009

By The Record

Let me begin with two tales of intolerance.


Cardinal George Pell of Sydney cuts a lonely figure as he carries his crosier onto the main stage to celebrate the opening Mass for World Youth Day in Sydney on July 15, 2008. Photo: CNS/Daniel Munoz, Reuters
























On November 4 last year, the day Barack Obama was elected president of
the United States, California and two other states also voted to amend
their constitutions to define marriage as between a man and a woman
only. This brought to 29 the number of American states with
constitutional amendments recognising only marriage between a man and a
woman as valid, including Arizona which amended its constitution in
2008 after rejecting a proposed amendment in 2006.
Forty-two states also have statutes defending the traditional
understanding of marriage. Only Massachusetts and Connecticut have
legalised same-sex marriage – by court decisions, not legislation – and
California’s Supreme Court had also legalised same sex marriage in May
2008, when it struck down a marriage amendment made to the state
constitution in 2000. The new amendment passed last November – known as
Proposition 8 – is now itself before the California Supreme Court,
which yesterday [March 5] heard argument in three cases claiming it is
unconstitutional. We can expect a decision from the court within the
next three months.
Proposition 8 passed with a little over 52 per cent of the vote, with a
turnout of just under 80 per cent of registered voters. Supporters of
same sex marriage have not taken this defeat well. Mormon temples in
particular, as well as Catholic and Evangelical churches, have been the
focus for demonstrations, often attended by violence, vandalism and
intimidation. White powder has been sent to places of worship, and some
blogs are calling for them to be burnt down. Individual supporters of
Proposition 8 have received death threats and been assaulted.
Businesses which contributed to the campaign in favour of Proposition 8
are being boycotted, and individuals who made personal donations are
being blacklisted and in some cases forced to resign from their jobs.
The situation is so serious that the non-partisan Becket Fund for
Religious Liberty, which takes no position on same-sex marriage and
works with churches and organisations on both sides of the question,
ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on 5 December
condemning the harassment and anti-religious bigotry being directed at
Proposition 8 supporters.
Little about this prolonged campaign of payback and bullying has been
reported internationally, and I suspect that for some, or even many of
you here tonight this is the first time you have heard anything about
it. It is being waged against Christians and others who have done
nothing more than take part in a political campaign in a democracy,
endeavouring to persuade a majority of the electorate to their point of
view. Few human rights activists have objected to the vilification and
hate-speech that has been directed at supporters of Proposition 8. In
general, the media has shown scant interest in a form of organised
intimidation, which even extends to making people unemployable, simply
because they do not agree with same sex marriage.
And you have to search long and hard if you want to hear the stories of
those who have been assaulted or abused because they believe that
marriage can only mean the marriage of a man and a woman. It hardly
needs saying that there would have been no strange lack of attention if
supporters of same sex marriage were being targeted for bullying and
Before beginning my second tale of intolerance let me make clear a number of presuppositions.
I approve of legislation outlawing incitement to violence and
acknowledge that tightly limited anti-hate legislation is appropriate.
But this second category of legislation should be used sparingly, lest
it stifle robust legitimate criticism, so deepening tensions and
exasperation under the surface, indirectly encouraging what it aspires
to prevent. No-one has tried to use anti-hate legislation (so far)
against Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens!
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 an increased number of
Muslims came to live outside Muslim majority societies, a practice not
encouraged traditionally. In the new situation Western countries with
Islamic minorities must respect their full range of democratic
freedoms, encourage participation and foster inter-community and
interreligious dialogue. Both within Australia and internationally in
South East Asia I have been a regular participant in these dialogues.
However I believe it is a mistake in principle and prudentially to try
to prevent criticism of any major religious tradition, religiously,
sociologically or philosophically. In a democracy criticism can be made
and can be answered. No-one today in the West would suggest that
criticism of Christianity should be outlawed. A recent Prime Minister
of Australia claimed that if Catholics were to riot every time they
were criticised there would be regular riots!
My second tale of intolerance is really a collection of tales following
the same narrative. Some of these you will know.  In separate cases in
Canada last year, human rights tribunals brought charges of hate crime
against the publisher Ezra Levant (for republishing the cartoons of
Muhammad which were first printed in the Danish newspaper
Jyllands-Posten in 2005), and the weekly magazine Macleans (for
publishing an excerpt from Mark Steyn’s 2006 book America Alone under
the title “The Future belongs to Islam”). In 2006 Italian journalist
Oriana Fallaci was charged with vilifying Islam in her book The Force
of Reason, and in 2004 two Australian evangelical pastors were brought
before a tribunal in the Australian state of Victoria for critical
remarks about Islam which were alleged to be in breach of Victoria’s
“religious tolerance” legislation.
The charges against Ezra Levant were dismissed, and Macleans was
grudgingly cleared. Fallaci died of cancer before her case came to
court, and the verdicts against the two Australian pastors were set
aside on appeal. While a retrial was ordered, this was abandoned when
the complainant, the Islamic Council of Victoria withdrew its
complaint. It would be a mistake, however to think that all these
complaints came to nothing. Levant was left with legal bills of
$100,000, and one estimate puts the legal costs of the two Australian
pastors, whose case and appeal ran for two and half years, at somewhere
between $750,000 and $1million.
I have not used the examples of Geert Wilders, the Dutch
parliamentarian ordered to stand trial for inciting hatred and
discrimination against Muslims in his short film Fitna. As I have not
seen the film I am unable to judge whether it does incite hatred,
although I note Wilders has not been charged with inciting violence.
The expense of defending frivolous hate speech allegations, the time
consumed in dealing with them, and the anxiety that comes from being
enmeshed in a legal process straight out of Kafka all have an effect on
the climate of openness, stifling robust discussion and fermenting
intolerance under the surface. Since Ayatollah Khomeini placed a death
sentence on Salman Rushdie twenty years ago last month, many in the
West have grown used to practising self-censorship when it comes to
Islam, just as we seem to accept that ex-Muslims who criticise Islam
and extremism, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, require round the clock police
What do these two tales of intolerance tell us? We should note the
strange way in which some of the most permissive groups and
communities, for example, Californian liberals in the case of
Proposition 8, easily become repressive, despite all their high
rhetoric about diversity and tolerance.
There is the one-sidedness about discrimination and vilification.
Opposition to same-sex marriage is a form of homophobia, and therefore
bad; but Christianophobic blacklisting and intimidation is passed over
in silence. You can be prosecuted for hate speech if you discuss
violence in Islam, but there is little fear of a hate speech
prosecution for Muslim demonstrators with placards reading “Hamas,
Hamas, Jews to the gas”.
It is a fundamental truism that not all religions are the same. This
might be an obvious point to us, but the idea that all religions are
basically concerned with the same things and more or less morally
equivalent in the goodness and badness they have brought to human
history is very pervasive. Major differences exist between religions,
within religions, and in the contributions they make to culture and
society.In a democracy, believers and non-believers must be free to
talk about these differences, to criticise each other’s beliefs (what
Catholics used to call apologetics), and to evangelise, (or
propagandise) while always respecting the freedom of the individual.
Reciprocity in this is essential: it is not a one way street.
Some secularists seem to like one way streets. Their intolerance of
Christianity seeks to drive it not only from the public square, but
even from the provision of education, healthcare and welfare services
to the wider community. Tolerance has come to mean different things for
different groups.
One of the preferred means for addressing perceived intolerance is anti-discrimination legislation.
As experience from across the Anglosphere has shown, the idea of
anti-discrimination has enormous power to shape public opinion. It has
been used very effectively to redefine marriage and to make a range of
relationships acceptable as the foundation for various new forms of the
family. Anti-discrimination legislation in tandem with new reproductive
technologies has made it possible for children to have three, four or
five parents, relegating the idea of a child being brought up by his
natural mother and father to nothing more than a majority adult
preference. The rights of children to be created in love and to be
known and raised by their biological parents receives scant
consideration when the legislative agenda is directed to satisfying
adult needs and ambitions.
Until relatively recently anti-discrimination laws usually included
exemptions for churches and other religious groups so that they could
practise and manifest their beliefs in freedom. These exemptions are
now being refused or defined in the narrowest possible terms in new
anti-discrimination measures, and existing exemptions are being eroded
or “strictly construed” by the courts.
In the United States the exemptions granted to churches and their
agencies vary from state to state, and in the extent of protection they
afford. The effort to wind these exemptions back has focussed initially
on contraception. At least eighteen states have enacted “contraceptive
mandate” laws, usually with names such as The Women’s Contraceptive
Equity Act or The Women’s Health and Wellness Act, which require
employer health insurance plans to cover the costs of contraceptives on
the basis that failure to do so constitutes sex discrimination.
Catholic health insurance usually did not cover these costs.
The state of New York passed such a law in 2002, which, like a similar
law passed by California in 1999, grants an exemption defining
religious employers so narrowly that church welfare agencies, schools
and hospitals do not qualify.
Appeals to the two states’ highest courts (in 2006 and 2004
respectively) to broaden the definition were rejected, and the US
Supreme Court declined to review the Californian decision. While most
states with contraceptive mandates make broader exemptions for
religious employers, only one grants protection to individuals who
conscientiously object to them.
Exemptions for church hospitals or medical services are increasingly
contentious in the United States, with opponents describing them as
“refusal” or “denial clauses”. When exemptions are granted, the
standard of care provided by these services is criticised as
second-rate, on the grounds that they fail to offer patients the full
range of options. Individual healthcare workers have been sued and
dismissed from employment for adhering to their convictions. In 2007
the New England Journal of Medicine published a study claiming that
almost 100 million Americans are at risk of being denied “legal medical
interventions” by doctors who, because of religious or moral
objections, either decline to inform patients about possible treatments
or refuse to refer them to other doctors who will provide them.
It will be a major escalation in the culture wars if President Obama
keeps his commitment to sign into law a proposed “Freedom of Choice
Act”, which will sweep away any restrictions on abortion in state laws.
It will also remove any protections in legislation for doctors, nurses,
and hospitals with moral objections to abortion. I am still hoping
against hope that the President will not trigger such a massive
confrontation with pro-life Christians.
In Australia last year, the act of parliament which decriminalised
abortion in the state of Victoria included provisions which made a
mockery of conscientious objection, requiring doctors who object to
abortion to refer patients seeking abortion to medical practitioners
who will provide them. Where an abortion is deemed necessary to save
the life of a pregnant woman, doctors and nurses are legally obliged to
provide it, regardless of any conscientious objections they may have.
The debate surrounding the Victorian abortion law was significant for a
number of other reasons as well. Pro-abortion commentators attacked the
concept of conscientious objection as nothing more than a way for
doctors and nurses to impose their morality on their patients.
Victoria’s statutory charter of rights, which purports to protect
freedom of religion, conscience and belief, was shown to be a dead
letter when it comes to abortion, thanks to a clause which expressly
excludes any law concerning abortion from its coverage. The human
rights industry ran dead on the freedom of conscience issues which the
legislation raised. Amnesty International seems to have been completely
missing in action. While Amnesty was founded on respect for conscience,
it adopted abortion as a human right in 2007. As we know, abortion
corrupts everything it touches; law, medicine and the whole concept of
human rights. It would be another tragedy if it has so quickly
corrupted Amnesty’s commitment to its foundational belief in freedom of
As a number of commentators have pointed out, the legalisation of same
sex marriage has momentous potential to curtail religious freedom.
Generally churches and ministers of religion who decline to bless such
marriages are protected by exemptions. But in places such as Canada
this protection is not extended to civil marriage celebrants, even when
the plain meaning of the statutory exemption suggests they are
protected.  Anti-discrimination laws are also raising serious freedom
of religion issues for churches in the areas of relationship
counselling, sex and relationship education in secondary schools, the
hire of parish, school and church facilities, and accommodation
arrangements in emergency housing, retreat, conference and aged care
How should Christians respond to this growing secular intolerance?
Clearly, there is an urgent need to deepen public understanding of the
importance and nature of religious freedom. Having the freedom to
search for answers to questions of meaning and value, and to live
publicly and privately in accordance with our answers is an essential
part of human fulfilment and happiness, and gives rise to other
important freedoms such as the rights to freedom of expression, thought
and conscience. Believers should not be treated by government and the
courts as a tolerated and divisive minority whose rights must always
yield to the minority secular agenda, especially when religious people
are overwhelmingly in the majority. The opportunity to contribute to
community and public good is a right of all individuals and groups,
including religious ones. The application of laws within democracies
should facilitate the broadening of these opportunities, not their
increasing constraint.
Modern liberalism has strong totalitarian tendencies. Institutions and
associations, it implies, exist only with the permission of the state
and to exist lawfully, they must abide the dictates or norms of the
state. Modern liberalism is remote indeed from traditional liberalism,
which sees the individual and the family and the association as prior
to the state, with the latter existing only to fulfil functions that
the former require but which are beyond their means to provide.
Traditional liberalism understood the state to exist to assist (provide
subsidium) to the association; the association does not exist to
further the function of the state.
All this is clearly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights (1948) which provides, for example, that parents have “a prior
right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their
children”(Article 26(3)); and in the International Covenant on Economic
and Social and Cultural Rights (1966) which provides that the state is
to respect the liberty of parents “to ensure the religious and moral
education of their children in conformity with their own convictions”
(Article 13(3)).
It is important to keep an eye on the bigger picture too. The great
question which exercises modern culture is the meaning of human
autonomy and especially sexual freedom.
But this struggle is fundamentally a struggle over a religious
question, which can be formulated in various ways and revolves around
the reality of a transcendent order, or its denial. One way of putting
it is: “Did God create us or did we create God?” The limited scope that
secularism is prepared to concede to religious beliefs is based on the
assumption that we created God.
As long as the supremacy remains with man, as long as faith is
understood as a private therapeutic pursuit that can be picked up,
changed or discarded at will, it is permissible. But when people insist
that faith is more than this and that the supremacy is not ours, it is
resisted; increasingly through the law.
The use of anti-discrimination law and human rights claims to advance
the autonomy project is not new in itself, but the withholding or
retrenchment of exemptions for Church agencies and conscience
provisions for individuals is a newer and dangerous trend. A number of
factors are at play here, but the broad effect is to enforce
conformity. It seems that just as the faith and convictions of
individual believers have to be privatised and excluded from public
life, the services that Church agencies provide to society have to be
The service the Church gives has always been a source of its growth and
strength, and Church agencies working in the areas of welfare, family,
education, health and aged care bear witness to the values that
Christian leaders put forward in public debate.
Part of the logic in attacking the freedom of the Church to serve
others is to undermine the witness these services give to powerful
Christian convictions. The goal is to neutralise this witness to the
reality of Christian revelation. There is no need to drive the Church
out of services if the secularisation of its agencies can achieve this
The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s remains the greatest modern
example of cultural change. It was made possible by a range of factors,
including the development of reliable contraceptives and the rising
economic prosperity of Western life. Individualism ousted the family
and the community from the first place. The ideas supporting free love
and liberated sexuality that flooded the world in the 1960s were also
important for generalising confusion and for pushing the issue beyond
sexuality to the more fundamental goal of radical human autonomy.
These ideas were quickly taken up by a musical revolution (the Beatles,
the Rolling Stones) which had an unprecedented cultural impact on that
generation, reinforcing individualism and irreligion. Two key premises
of the revolutionary developments of the 1960s were that radical
cultural change requires a significant proportion of the population to
adopt new assumptions about love and sex, and that living out these
assumptions will commit these people and the culture to further radical
When Christianity was brought to the Roman world it also worked from
these premises, for radically different purposes and with
world-transforming results. The definition of the human person in the
present age depends on which understanding of love and sexuality
prevails in the culture.
This is one reason why conflicts over the meaning and purpose of
sexuality often seem to be at only one or two removes from public
arguments over issues as disparate as religious freedom and
biotechnology. The issue will be resolved differently in Europe and the
United States, if Brussels wins its battle for secular conformity.
The question of autonomy, freedom and supremacy plays itself out, among
other places, in the contest between religious freedom and sexual
freedom. Absolute sexual freedom lies at the heart of the modern
autonomy project.
It extends now well beyond preferences about sexual practices or forms
of relationship to preferences about the method and manner of
procreation, family formation and the uses of human reproduction in
medical research.
The message from the earliest days of the sexual revolution, always
barely concealed behind the talk of “live and let live” and creating
space for “different forms of loving”, was that few limits on human
sexual autonomy will be tolerated. This is generating the pressures
against religion in public life. But there will be limits. There are
already abundant indications of human autonomy being diminished from
the left as sexual freedom becomes a driver of consumption and an
organising principle of economic life, with the re-emergence of slavery
in Europe and Asia, the booming exploitation of pornography and
prostitution, and the commercialisation of surrogacy, egg donation, and
the production and destruction of human embryos and human stem-cell
At the level of the individual, the possibilities of happiness are
greatly restricted by the lovelessness, fear and despair that the
assertion of the autonomous self against others usually leaves in its
Limits are an inescapable part of the human condition. The only
questions are whether they will be the limits of servitude or the
limits of freedom, and whether self love or love of others will be
Resolving these questions requires us to expand the boundaries of what
is thought possible, especially by bringing into focus the experiences
and ideas which are not acknowledged or legitimised by the secularist
Put simply, Christians have to recover their genius for showing that
there are better ways to live and to build a good society; ways which
respect freedom, empower individuals, and transform communities. They
also have to recover their self-confidence and courage.
The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted
regularly and publicly. Believers need to call the bluff of what is,
even in most parts of Europe, a small minority with disproportionate
influence in the media.
This is one of the crucial tasks for Christians in the twenty-first century.