‘Meet Dom Perrottet – the conservative Catholic and father-of-six who will be NSW’s next Premier”, read a headline on the ABC, as if gunning to be premier was akin to finding a match on a dating website. It was the same story elsewhere: the nation’s other public broadcaster, the SBS, known for airing multicultural and diverse viewpoints, posed the question: “Devout Catholic and vocal conservative: Who is NSW’s new premier Dominic Perrottet?” The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney’s longest-running tabloid, meanwhile, conjured up this doozy: “NSW must do better”.
Catholics, of course, are no strangers to being frontline acts in Australian public life: we have had Catholic premiers and politicians at state and federal levels, Catholic prime ministers and opposition leaders, and Catholic power brokers and advisers. Even so, rabid, public anti-Catholic bigotry, sadly, continues to rear its ugly head with ever greater intensity.
Given Catholicism’s long association with political life in the Commonwealth, what is at the heart of such an extraordinary overreaction?
Conservative commentators and Catholic thinkers often use a historical approach to explain anti-Catholic sentiments still prevalent in Australia today. Anti-Catholicism, they claim, is a species of sectarianism; it is an enduring relic of the European settlement on the island nation, a fire which, hard as we may try, cannot be put out. This form of sectarianism lives on today as strongly as it did two centuries ago when the majority of (Irish Catholic) convicts were subjected to the rule of their (predominantly Protestant) British overlords. It is bigotry that desperately needs to be expunged from the public sphere, many lament, particularly in a land as pluralistic, as welcoming and as diverse as Australia.
But such an account – although accurate in many ways – only sharpens the puzzle. As the political class, the media, our educators and leaders of our public institutions univocally reject and repudiate Australia’s colonial beginnings, it is clear the historical approach cannot, and does not, adequately explain why the only remnant that remains of our nation’s “unspeakably abhorrent” past is that of anti-Catholic bigotry.
In light of this, I would like to suggest, as many have noted previously, that the root cause of the Church’s volatile relationship with the secular realm is a result of the doctrinal teachings of the Church – the ark of tradition – standing in direct opposition to the key tenets of liberalism – an anti-tradition.
To illustrate my point, consider the hit piece in the Sydney Morning Herald from last week in which Stephanie Dowrick, a protestant minister and self-titled social activist, argued the widely accepted view that private citizens are entitled to freedom of belief as long as their views are “held privately”.
For secular progressives, individual commitments to particular religious observances are fine so long as your privately held beliefs remain obscured at all costs. What you do in the context of public worship in your churches, in your homes, is of no concern to us, they say, as long as you respect the faultline placed between private belief and public, political action. Any attempt at bringing religion into public life risks blurring “those vital margins between private and public”.
Agents of liberalism – the Enlightenment doctrine that politics is subservient to the highest good of individual autonomy – have spent centuries preaching about the merits of tolerance in an open, diverse society whilst being little capable of adhering to their own principles. While Enlightenment thinkers, in theory, created an artificial boundary between the “noumena” and the “phenomena”, liberals have gone one step further in implementing it. Where Kant’s delineation sought “to make room for faith”, the children of Enlightenment thought seek to transform organic, political communities into their own image in a radically Pelagian manner, crushing, with whatever means possible, professions incompatible with liberal faith.
This goes some way to explaining the hatred shown towards Catholics. Perrottet is unfit to hold public office not necessarily because he attends Mass on Sundays per se, or because he believes in the real presence. Rather, the problem secularists have with devout Catholics generally, and Perrottet specifically, is that they would rather we participate in the sacramental life of the Church and uphold Catholic “dogmatism”, often at the expense of participating in liberalism’s various public liturgies, thus openly repudiating a liberal agenda which takes goods – properly understood – and distorts them for the sake of progress. As such, Catholics are retrogressive obstacles who stand in the way of history’s inevitable march towards freedom from the “oppressive forces” of religious belief.
But liberalism’s success is also a mark of its own inevitable failure. A time will emerge when individuals, disillusioned by the atomisation of society and the dissolving of traditional institutions, will, both interiorly and manifestly, seek out and pursue the substantive good as presented by the Church, the Guardian of Truth. In Perrottet, and a growing throng of Catholics committed to the true, the good and the beautiful, secular progressives are cognisant of the regime’s eventual downfall, one which is occurring at an accelerated pace. And that is liberalism’s greatest fear.
Cronan Yu is a Sydney-based lawyer and writer, and a producer at Sky News Australia
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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