All around the Western world the freedoms which in so many ways arose out of the Judeo-Christian worldview are slowly being challenged or stripped away. Religious freedom is especially coming under attack. Here in Victoria the proposal to remove religious exemptions to our equal opportunity legislation will severely impair our freedom to proclaim the gospel and to undertake services and activities in the name of Christ.
Many are rightly asking if this is part of a broader campaign by the government to de-Christianise the state, and force everyone to embrace its secular, socially progressive agenda. It is certainly possible, given how these various government initiatives are often done with so little public fanfare.
Indeed, as I recently told one reporter, I would suspect that perhaps 95 per cent of Victorians do not even know this review of the legislation is underway. If more people knew, I think there would be far greater outcry. But the government seems intent on sneaking this and other radical changes through under the radar.
I have written up the many risks associated with these changes elsewhere on this site. Here I wish to draw your attention to the just released Pastoral Letter on this topic put out by the Catholic Bishops of Victoria. It rightly points out the many shortcomings of these proposed changes, and argues that the exemptions be left intact.
It notes how the government’s attempt to isolate “core” religious activities from non-core activities is completely unacceptable: “The distinction made in the Options Paper between the core ‘internal’ aspects of freedom of religion such as the right to adopt a religion and the freedom to participate in religious observance and practice and the undertaking of ‘business’ activities such as in education, health, welfare, etc. away from the ‘core’ activities, is false and is therefore rejected.
“The theological basis of service by Catholic agencies is to witness to the founding inspiration expressed in Christ’s injunction to love your neighbour and in imitation of the healing ministry of Christ. That inspiration is for Catholics to provide genuine service to the community, but most particularly those who are in need.
“The delivery of services in education, health, aged cared and welfare by religious agencies in Victoria has been and remains particularly important for migrants. Church agencies provide a context of shared belief and culture where new arrivals could find a familiar source of welcome. That welcome also extends beyond shared belief and culture. Often the Church agencies were almost the only agencies available. They were certainly a safety net for those who did not receive Government assistance.”
Given how many religious-based social service activities take place in Victoria, and Australia, it would be foolish in the extreme to effectively force the churches out of such activities. This is how the Bishops express this concern:
“We express particular concern that the proposals in the Options Paper to remove protection from religious bodies would, in effect, force the secularisation of service delivery by religious agencies. The likely effect of these proposals would be profound because it would go to the heart of the religious motivation that leads people to be involved in ownership, governance and employment, as well as through volunteerism. Experience of the secularisation of service delivery here and overseas indicates that the result of forced secularisation is that some religious agencies withdraw from that work because it removes part of its vocational meaning for them. Secularisation also results in a loss of volunteerism. If people can no longer identify with the religious meaning of the activity, then they are likely to withdraw.”
The Bishops also highlight how these changes will negatively impact on educational services provided by the Church: “Catholic Education is not only a right, but also a duty that is imposed on the Church (Canon 794 § 1). Catholic Education must not only ensure that the instructions given in them is at least as academically distinguished as that in other schools (Canon 806 § 2) but must pay regard to the formation of the whole person (Canon 795).
“In education, therefore, the religious identity of Catholic schools has a particularly formative role given that the formation of students is the purpose of the activity. Parents choose a religious education for their children in the expectation that the institution will educate their children according to the teachings and traditions of that religion.
“Religious schools therefore require those who are in a position to influence students to give witness to those teachings. That does have lifestyle implications. To preserve that role of witness, educational institutions need to be able to make witness to the religious teachings an employment criterion.”
Health care services are also at risk: “The client expectation of a religious health or aged care facility is that it will be conducted according to the teaching of the religion. For staff members this means a requirement that they abide by the mission, philosophy and code of ethical standards (which cover the Church’s teaching on life matters) while working within the institution. Nevertheless, employees in health and aged care also require particular skills, knowledge and sensitivity towards those whose spiritual needs may be more sharply focussed as they enter the last chapter of their life.”
To force Catholic hospitals and medical facilities to employ both workers and methods which may be contrary to Catholic teaching would of course put unacceptable strains on these institutions, and could easily result in their closure.
The Letter concludes, “The tolerant pluralism of the Australian society that values difference and diversity is under threat and religion is a major target. It is important therefore that people of goodwill defend their religious liberties.
“The importance of service delivery, by religious people and religious agencies, as an essential element of religious belief and practice in service to neighbour is one our Parliamentarians need to hear. It is also important to defend our pluralist society, the diversity of service delivery, the right of people to receive services in the context of their own beliefs and practices, and the rights of parents to give their children an education in their own faith tradition.”
It is hoped that other religious bodies in Victoria have looked carefully at how these proposed changes will impact on their faith, and that they too will issue a strong defence of religious freedom, and strong objections to these dangerous directions the government seems to be heading in.