Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Flare-Ups Down Under

Beneath the Southern Cross, where winter is summer and today is tomorrow, abortion-and-communion has become stem cells-and-communion.

As the New South Wales parliament takes up a measure to undo a ban on embryonic stem-cell research in the Australian state, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney launched an incandescent assault on the legislation. He was joined by his Anglican counterpart, Archbishop Peter Jensen, who compared the research to the unethical advances in science wrought by the Nazis.

"If this bill is passed, the enemies of human life will soon be back with further proposals, disguised with sweet words and promises of cures, to roll back the few remaining barriers to the regular destruction of early human life," Pell said in a statement. "But allowing scientists open slather on human embryos for unethical research is not the best way forward.

"No Catholic politician – indeed, no Christian or person with respect for human life – who has properly informed his conscience about the facts and ethics in this area should vote in favour of this immoral legislation," the cardinal said. In its own letter to parliamentarians, the Anglican hierarchy warned that the bill "will enshrine in law the corrupt view that... the embryos used are not morally significant or important."

Though the proposal would maintain the ban on human reproductive cloning, it does permit the duplication of stem cells for "therapeutic" purposes -- a term Pell also took issue with. MPs will not be held to their party whips for the vote, and in a media availability today, Australia's top churchman said that "Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realize that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the church."

The message was interpreted as extending to the premier of Australia's most-populous state, Morris Iemma, himself a Catholic. Sydney and New South Wales expect to host Pope Benedict next summer for World Youth Day 2008, and the state and national governments have already made substantial contributions to the event's success.

Supporters of the bill say that, according to polls, 80% of Australians support the controversial research. The NSW measure comes after a national ban on it was overturned last December.

No stranger to the Klieg lights, Pell's charge against the stem-cell bill is but the latest high-profile story to come out of the Sydney archdiocese in recent weeks.

At the weekend, it emerged that a draft pastoral plan in the archdiocese will make a profession of faith mandatory for all senior education administrators. As commentators sought to portray the move as some sort of anachronistic oath of fealty containing "shades of Opus Dei," Sydney auxiliary Julian Porteous said that the move "is not about control.

"Anybody who speaks in a Catholic education institution is meant to be presenting the Catholic faith in its integrity. There can be a place for theologians to make explorations of criticism, but in teaching positions the role is to very much be faithful to the teaching of the church," Porteous told the Sydney Morning Herald.

And last month, World Youth Day organizers faced a new media onslaught as conservative activists demanded the ouster of the designated voice behind the event's theme song for previous statements he made in support of same-sex marriage.

Within days of the announcement that "Receive the Power," the song submitted by "Australian Idol" winner Guy Sebastian, would be the tune of the Holy Spirit-themed gathering, a 2006 interview was dredged up in which the singer replied to a question about gay unions by saying that "If you're a gay couple why not?"

"I don't really have a stance because I don't know what it's like to be told you're not allowed to marry somebody," Sebastian -- a Christian -- told a national newspaper. "That doesn't seem fair to me." He called faith-based activism against gays "the sad side of Christianity" and its proponents' mindset "the old fundamentalist way of thinking that's unfortunately spread through all these generations.

"They miss the whole point of Christianity which is love," Sebastian observed.

As furious posts on grassroots message boards demanded action, senior organizers held a series of crisis meetings, finally deciding to shirk the protests and keep Sebastian. So, as things stand, the Idol will take the mic before the Pope and a global audience at a Sydneyside racecourse in the Australian midwinter.

To understand why isn't so much a case of Down Under Upside-down, but George Pell 101.

SVILUPPO: The battle has been joined; Iemma and other Catholic MPs say they'll proceed with their support of the stem-cell bill.
Two of the state's highest-profile practising Catholics, the Premier, Morris Iemma, and his deputy, John Watkins, will defy the church's warnings that they face "consequences" in their religious lives to support a bill to expand stem cell research in NSW....

Mr Iemma and Mr Watkins yesterday confirmed they would back the bill, while the Nationals MP Adrian Piccoli, another practising Catholic, said he would support the bill, adding "I would like to see them try and stop me [taking Holy Communion]."

Mr Piccoli said: "The cardinal's comments are unacceptable. We don't accept that Muslims should influence politics, so I don't see why Catholics should."

A spokesman for Mr Iemma said the Premier would continue to take Holy Communion despite Dr Pell's warning. Dr Pell said he was not threatening Catholic MPs with excommunication but he did not rule out that their "yes" vote could "loosen" their bonds with the church, which strongly opposes therapeutic cloning....

The Minister for Science and Medical Research, Verity Firth, said the Catholic Church was entitled to its views, as were advocacy groups representing people who could benefit from expanding stem cell research. "I don't want anyone feeling they have a monopoly on morality," she told the Herald. "This is about relieving human suffering and having hope when there is none."

Another Catholic, the Liberal MP Greg Smith, said he would not support the bill but believed it was matter for each individual's conscience, while the Opposition Leader, Barry O'Farrell, also a Catholic, said he would consider Dr Pell's comments before deciding whether to vote for the bill.

The federal Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who was one of a handful of Catholics who voted for the federal stem cell legislation, declined to comment on Archbishop Pell's statements.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research Australia said there would be electoral consequences for politicians who did not vote in support of research that could offer potential therapy for spinal cord injury, motor neurone disease, Parkinson's disease and juvenile diabetes.

"There are patients and their families who are also constituency members and will not vote for them when the next election comes along," said the group's convenor, Joanna Knott.