April 2014

Religion, politics and the ‘consistent ethic of life’

We should question supposed Christian organisations concerned only with bioethical or so-called moral issues related to life, death and sexuality, without reference to equality, inclusion and a decent and meaningful existence throughout life, writes Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

Many people are familiar with the role of religion in American politics and the apparent polarities therein. Traditionally, the Democratic Party’s social liberal policies were favoured by religious minorities, with many Catholics identifying with the party. John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic President of the United States, was a Democrat.

The Republican Party’s genesis was in anti-slavery action, but it is now considered conservative. It garners the support of many Christian churches, particularly those on the so-called ‘Christian Right’ who espouse conservative positions on a variety of issues, including abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia.

Yet the Catholic Church in America has not ‘hitched its cart’ to the Republican Party as have many other Christian churches sharing the Catholic Church’s concern on these life issues.

Much of the explanation for this lies in the contradictions inherent in the Christian Right and its party of choice, in which universal health care is opposed and capital punishment supported. Policy to address poverty is neglected, whereas policy to carry guns is espoused. The Government’s role is primarily that of militarised defence, and war as a policy option is apparently unquestioned.

By contrast, the US Catholic Bishops have promoted the ‘consistent ethic of life’. This slogan expresses ‘in a nutshell’ the ideology developed by US Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the 1980s to support and promote principles of the sanctity of life at all stages. This means that the Church is not only committed to life issues for those unborn, or nearing death, but also to ensuring quality of life for those in between.

Addressing economic injustice, such as poverty, fair work and wages, and providing accessible health care are important elements of a consistent life ethic. We could add that a consistent life ethic offers care for women with unwanted pregnancies to make choosing life a viable alternative. It would also offer pastoral care and support for victims of sexual abuse; support and inclusion for people with disability; concern and care for prisoners, including asylum seekers held in detention. Advocating equality and participation in society and the community, as well as concern for the environment and animals could also be added.

Apart from the obvious justice considerations inherent in this philosophy, the consistent life ethic supports attentiveness to human rights. To quote Cardinal Bernardin, “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy”.

Of course, such a position has also meant that the Church is criticised by those on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. The Church has not helped its cause, compounding the pain of sexual abuse victims by denying justice and restitution.

In Australia, the issue of religion and politics is not nearly so fraught or partisan as it is in America. However, a number of religious political organisations appear to mirror the concerns of churches associated with the Christian Right in the United States. It is unfortunate that some purporting to represent a Christian position restrict their commentary to policy issues at the beginning of life and end of life, with little regard for those in between.

Fortunately, the majority of churches in Australia are more discerning. The Catholic Bishops in Australia articulate policy positions coherent with the ‘consistent ethic of life’, even if they do not explicitly reference this ethic. This is evident in their comments on palliative care, asylum seekers, employment conditions and more.

There are aspects of the Government’s policy that support the consistent ethic of life.  Continued work to establish the National Disability Insurance Scheme is reassuring, as are some of their workforce participation initiatives such as for long-term unemployment.

We do not experience the same polarisation of views evident in the American political system.  Yet we should be aware of contradictions. We should question the Government when it takes the case of Japanese whaling to the international court, and does not uphold international laws in relation to asylum seekers and children.

In recent years, comparisons have been made between the religious dimensions of United States’ political parties and those in Australia. In my view, such comparisons are misguided, as views and beliefs on religion are diverse across the major parties.

For many decades now, a Catholic-Labor alliance is not assumed as it was throughout most of the twentieth century. Similarly, conservative parties no longer retain a Protestant ascendancy.  In the years of the Howard Government, there were significant numbers of Catholics in Cabinet, including men holding significant positions in Australian politics today: Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey, Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews. The Labor Party has its own share of high-profile Catholics including Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

But we could consider the United States experience as a cautionary tale where one party was co-opted by a particular agenda. We should question supposed Christian organisations concerned only with bioethical or so-called moral issues related to life, death and sexuality, without reference to equality, inclusion and a decent and meaningful existence throughout life. Instead, we should support policy participants with a ‘consistent ethic of life’ during the entire lifespan of individuals, and across the community.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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