Thursday, June 07, 2007

Likened to "Boofhead," Pell Takes a Pelting

Three days after Cardinal George Pell of Sydney warned Catholic members of the New South Wales parliament of ecclesial "consequences" if they voted in favor of a bill permitting embryonic stem-cell research in Australia's largest state, the legislation passed its lower house by a larger-than-expected margin of 65 to 26.

In the debate leading up to today's highly-charged vote, the cardinal's Monday intervention -- which encited a firestorm in the Australian press and political circles -- was panned by several Catholic MPs, including the state premier Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees, a cabinet minister who accused Pell of "emotional blackmail" in light of his implication that the measure's Catholic supporters should not present themselves for Communion.

Rees compared the Sydneyside prelate to Sheik Taj el-din Al Hilaly, the Australian imam who garnered global headlines last year for likening women who shirk the Muslim hijab (head scarf) to "uncovered meat." In the same speech, the sheik also blamed women for "90 per cent" of the responsibility for adultery and declared that Christians and Jews will end up "in hell."

In comparing the clerics, Rees termed Sheik Al Hilaly a "serial boofhead."

As Federal Premier John Howard defended Oz's top Catholic, saying that the propriety of Pell's intervention "is entirely a matter for him and a matter for the Catholic church," Howard's health minister, Tony Abbott, sought in turns to both distance himself from the hierarchy's issue advocacy, and then support it.

In a speech last week at Sydney's Notre Dame university -- a new institution brought to the archdiocese by Pell -- Abbott (nicknamed "Captain Catholic" in the press) said that while "there is an absolutely crystal clear moral position against abortion on demand, a Catholic politician's duty is to try to make a bad situation better, not necessarily to try to create a perfect situation, given the realities of the world in which we live."

"[A]t no stage have I ever said that we should try to re-criminalise abortion," Abbott said, "because I just think that to try to do that in our society, would be incredibly difficult and I think it might very well end up making a bad situation worse, not better."

However, after Pell's comments on the stem-cell bill, Abbott said that "what [Pell] appeared to be saying to me was that this was a serious matter and people need to carefully consider the traditional teaching, they should not lightly dismiss it." The health minister voted against overturning a national ban on the contentious research last year, but the vote's result favored stem-cell supporters.

Abbott's Notre Dame remarks were broadcast on national radio's The Religion Report, which invited Pell to appear. The program received no reply from the cardinal.

Aside from the predictable diatribes of progressives within the church, the cardinal took hits even from parliamentarians who sided with him on the stem-cell measure. "If the cardinal's approach is to start excommunicating Catholic MPs," minister Kristina Keneally said, "I think he might want to know of my support for the ordination of women."

Word from Parliament House says that, while the result -- on which MPs were permitted by party leaders to vote their conscience -- appeared close even to the final hours before the debate, Pell's high-stakes entrance into the fray compelled undecided members to break decisively in favor of the bill as an assertion of independence.

Days after the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB left the door open for individual bishops to excommunicate Catholic politicians whose actions facilitate access to abortion, Pell was backed up by Western Australia's senior prelate, Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, who told a local newspaper that pro-stem-cell Catholic politicians should refrain from receiving the Eucharist, and that excommunication remained within his realm of options.

Shortly after Hickey's comments, the state parliament announced that -- amid perceptions of his comments as a threat to the body's autonomy -- the archbishop's statements would be investigated by its privileges committee.