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Pell says Downer had a point

Sydney Archbishop George Pell went against the tide of church opinion yesterday in praising Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's Wednesday lecture which criticised church leaders for speaking out on public issues while neglecting their pastoral duties.

"I have read the full text of Mr Downer's Sir Thomas Playford Annual Lecture," he said. "It is an excellent talk; worth studying."

Dr Pell maintained that "all religious leaders in a democracy like Australia have a right and duty to speak out on public issues", stressing that "Mr Downer is not denying this."

Downer said in the speech: "I will always defend the right of the Churches to enter the political debates of our time."

But he added the qualificaton that in speaking out, church leaders have "responsibilities - to the facts, to their congregations and to their faiths". He went on to detail how he believes the Churches are neglecting these responsibilities.

Pell said that although he does not commit himself to agreeing with every judgement Downer expressed, "he is correct to point out that some ecclesiastics can get it wrong. One or two do so frequently".

Mr Downer accused the Catholic bishops of hypocrisy, singling them out for their "intemperate denunciations of Australia's participation in the coalition of the willing in Iraq" while at the same time calling for humanitarian intervention in Rwanda, the Balkans and East Timor.

Caritas Australia director suggested that the "vigor" of Downer's remarks reflect an ignorance of the body of church reflection, particularly in regard to Iraq. Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen expressed suprise as Downer's "very vigorous language".

Downer accused some church leaders of ignoring their primary pastoral duties in favour of "hogging the limelight," and too often seeking "popular political headlines" or pursuing "cheap causes".

Dr Helen Pringle, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of New South Wales, with specific expertise in matters of church and state, told ABC Radio's The World Today that she believes Mr Downer was attempting to ridicule the churches rather than stifle their right to free speech.

She said: "When the church stands firm on moral issues, and making war is a moral issue, the church will gain respect when it vacillates on questions about the treatment of the innocent and the vulnerable, then people will lose their faith and their loyalty to the church."

Meanwhile the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has conceded it mishandled its lobbying of MLCs over the Tasmanian Government's Relationships Bill, which passed through the upper house yesterday after protracted debate. Christian groups, including the Catholic Church, believe that Bill will pave the way for legally-recognised gay marriage.

The Lobby had contacted MLCs with media releases, took out television advertisements and provided briefings. But several Legislative Council members complained during their speeches about the "heavy-handed tactics" of the Australian Christian Lobby.

The Catholic Church pursued a separate, locally-based lobbying effort.

Senior ACL lobbyist Jim Wallace said the group would change the way it lobbied if it had its chance again. On the opposite side of the debate, Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesman Rodney Croome said it was the stories of gay and lesbian parents and their children which had been most successful in the lobbying.

"This is a good example of where the quietest voices have spoken the loudest."

Catholic Communications (Sydney)
ABC Radio 'The World Today'
The Mercury

Foreign Minister | At the Sir Thomas Playford Annual Lecture (text of speech delievered 27/8/03)
Editorial: Religious pulpit is no political bull-pit (The Australian)
Downer attack divides churches (The Australian, payment required)
Scrapbook: Alexander Downer critiques holy critics (The Australian)
Downer attitude amazes church (
Harbour deportees, say church leaders (The West Australian)
Church stung by Downer's 'headline hunter' claim (The Age)
'Feral student protesters' abuse Downer (The Advertiser)
Caritas head hits back after Downer slur on Church (28/8/03)
Downer chides church leaders (Sydney Morning Herald)
Downer slams `divisive' clerics (The Advertiser)
Archdiocese of Sydney

Hobart Archbishop accuses State Govt of deception on same-sex relationships
Australian Christian Lobby
Tasmanian Bishop Urges Legislative Council to Reconsider (Anglican Media Tasmania)
State gay laws a first (The Age)
Church urges Tasmanian Govt to shelve same sex adoption report (29/5/03)
Archdiocese of Hobart
Parliament of Tasmania | Legislative Council | Bills: Relationships, Relationships (Consequential Amendments)
The bill which will give gay couples new rights is challenged by the catholic church (ABC TV Stateline 20/6/03)

29 Aug 2003