Brown vs Pell: battles no one wins

Online Opinion | August 20, 2010

There are battles no one wins, and the latest exchange of fire between Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric and the federal leader of the Australian Greens is but one more skirmish in a war without any foreseeable end. Is a negotiated peace possible? Perhaps not, but there are good reasons both men, and the wider movements they represent, should seek common ground. Continuing the dispute on the terms it is now being conducted can only do both, and their respective causes, harm.

Cardinal George Pell’s description of the Greens’ policies as “thoroughly anti-Christian” has predictably angered party supporters who identify as Christians, and perhaps even more those who don’t. In defence they have pointed to their policies on the environment, treatment of asylum seekers and overseas aid, and to the election of past Greens senators including Christabel Chamarette (an Anglican) and Jo Valentine (a Quaker).

Had Pell acknowledged the above and instead stated that aspects of the Greens platform are fundamentally at odds with Christian values he would have been on decidedly firmer ground. In short, he erred.

But the response of Senator Bob Brown, that the Greens are “much closer to mainstream Christian thinking than Cardinal Pell”, was oddly disingenuous for a man known for his intelligence and integrity. His accusation that Pell opposes compassionate treatment of refugees and the federal government’s school building program were equally erroneous.

Is it possible to put aside the misconceptions and misrepresentations of both sides and attempt to uncover the substantive points of dispute? Let’s try.

It does not help that Pell is a climate change sceptic. Pell’s objections to the Greens in his Sunday Telegraph column appropriately avoided this personal view, but it bubbled up in his response to Brown’s barbs in his statement that “the economic consequences of the Greens’ policies will increase the cost of living, making food and energy more expensive, which will make the situation of the poor and the battlers even harder”. This and previous public entreaties on the issue – which in my view have not been well thought out – have helped to confirm a stereotype among Greens supporters that Pell and his fellow socially conservative Christians are anti-scientific,

But I venture he could be more easily converted from that view were it not for the stumbling block that he perceives the same people pushing the environmentalist agenda to be also pushing an anti-Christian agenda. One has only to listen to talkback radio or online forums to know that many social conservatives are deeply suspicious about the science underpinning the theory of human-caused climate change because they are deeply suspicious of the wider agenda of those most convinced of it – particularly those who advocate quite totalitarian policies to limit human procreation in the name of environmental protection. Defuse that mind-bomb and the sceptic ranks would thin considerably.

Are the Greens in denial about those policies which in no way can be regarded as close to mainstream Christian thinking? The party’s non-responses to questions from the Australian Christian Lobby regarding freedom of religion, embryonic cloning, euthanasia, funding for non-government schools and the definition of marriage, indicates coyness verging on contempt.

References to Stalinism may seem quaint three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it cannot be denied that within Green politics there is a strain of leftist intolerance towards touchstone moral issues intrinsic to Christian, and particularly Catholic, consciences.

This became evident to me during the World Youth Day celebrations in 2008. As 100,000 or so Catholics walked through the inner-Sydney suburb in which I live on their way to Royal Randwick Racecourse, I mingled with the few hundred protesters throwing condoms and insults. Some brandished upside-down crucifixes. Along with the Marxists, gay rights activists and Raelians, I was disconcerted to see the banners of the Australian Greens.

I asked one of the banner bearers why, given the pope had just made his most unambiguous statement on the moral dimensions of climate change, being part of such a protest was efficacious. Why not look to find common ground on an issue in which all those Catholics could be allies? The fervent greenie disagreed: the pope opposed contraception and abortion, measures needed to limit population. There was no room for compromise.

Another anecdote: A few years ago I edited a book on 100 simple things a person could do to reduce their environmental footprint. The authors asked me to find some quotes to start each of the book’s chapters. I came up with a selection – from the likes of Al Gore and David Suzuki, but also one from Mother Teresa: “I only feel angry when I see waste, when I see people throwing away things we could use.” The authors loved all of them – bar the one from Mother Teresa, because she was anti-abortion.

Can common ground be found? It is a question confronted by Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, in 2007 when, even while supporting her party’s policy on legal abortion, she dared to admit she thought it a moral dilemma. “I believe that respectful dialogue is possible even around such an emotionally charged issue as this,” May wrote. “Not every opponent of legal abortions is unthinking. Neither is every supporter of legal abortion unwilling to acknowledge the moral complexity of the issue. Some common ground could be found, I believe, when the discussion shifts to a broader context … It should not be a thought-crime to state publicly that the issue of abortion is one fraught with moral dilemmas.”

Not all agreed. The prominent Canadian feminist Judy Reibeck informed May in an open letter that: “Since you have so little respect for me or for the women’s movement which mobilized for so long to win this hard-earned right, I hope you will understand that I ripped up the cheque I had written to the Green Party and you can no longer rely on me for support … There is no middle ground on the abortion issue as you are no doubt finding out.”

With attitudes like that (which are, I hasten to add, by no means the preserve of any particular movement), finding a path to even a respectful, civil dialogue, let alone common ground, is difficult. But it is one that members of the Australian Greens need to think seriously about. That the de facto philosopher of the Australian Greens is the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer should give them some pause for reflection. Not that I think most of them have read much of Singer; his views on abortion are as discomforting to most pro-choicers as they are to pro-lifers (I haven’t, for example, noticed any high-profile Greens campaigning for infanticide); even the most avowed animal lover, while appreciating Singer’s arguments for vegetarianism, would probably hesitate to publicly endorse zoophilia); nor can the disabled find much solace in his relative estimation of a human being’s right to life.

Which leads me to two questions.

How important is the environment to Brown? Is action to address climate change more or less urgent than the agenda to radically reshape the moral precepts underpinning our civilisation? If the fate of the planet is at stake, shouldn’t he be seeking to make social conservatives feel welcome within the Greens ranks?

A corollary: Why has Pell allowed the climate change to so box him in? Does he not recognise that not being part of the solution to environmental problems means being part of the problem, and in so doing he helps undermines secular respect for his core beliefs as well as alienate the spiritually minded who yearn for a “seamless culture of life”?

“Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.”

Pope Benedict XVI wrote that in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, published last year. There’s a lesson in there that both the good archbishop and the good senator, and those they lead, could do well to take to heart.

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