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Discrimination law: let the Spirit prevail

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The practice of public testimonies of conversion is “probably fairly alien to a lot of people in the Catholic faith”. Photo: Unsplash
Christians can hold fast to our traditions while also treating individuals with sensitivity and graciousness.. Photo: Unsplash

Conversation about religious freedom will continue

Politicians and the media have become accustomed during the religious freedom debate to the term “Australians of faith”. It’s a clunky catch-all for people as distant theologically as the Prime Minister, Josephine Inkpin, the transgender minister of Pitt St Uniting Church, an Indigenous Catholic in a remote community, and Israel Folau. And that’s just within Christianity.

It also sets up “people of faith” as a special category. Presumably our counterparts who pencil in “no religion” on the census are to be called “people of reason”. Catholics have long rejected this distinction in the name of reason. After all, it is a core Catholic belief that reason is necessary for the practice of true religion as well as faith in the dispensation of God.

In the wake of the shelving of the religious freedom bill, however, it is time for us to reject this cultural faith-reason binary in the name of faith, too. In particular, Australian Catholics ought to insist that the growing segment of our population who proclaim “no religion” are just as reliant on faith as anyone else, despite their claims to be entirely “evidence-based”.

Faith – in particular good faith – is the foundation of the civic order.

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Faith – in particular good faith – is the foundation of the civic order. We have faith that people will usually act reasonably and in a trustworthy way; that the complex systems of law, health, logistics and the like will operate reliably; that our spouses are worth loving, despite all the trials of marriage – we expect all this, without a totally rational foundation for our expectations.

As St James teaches us, we do not even know whether tomorrow morning we will enjoy the fruits of today’s work. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time, and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Yet we act as if we will.

Even atheists reveal their faith in the goodness of the world and in others when they deal honestly and fairly with others. So let’s be clear with ourselves and with each other: Australians are “Australians of faith” as long as they believe in the world’s capacity to show us its goodness, when it is invited to do so.

The opposite of “people of faith” is not “people of reason”, but “people of cynicism”. Throughout the debate, the Catholic Church has done its utmost to uphold a public posture that is open, constructive and respectful. Can the same be said of the Church’s critics?

The Five and the Furious

We insist we can hold fast to our traditions while also treating individuals with sensitivity and graciousness. Yet Christians have been characterised again and again as authoritarian bigots frothing at the mouth for the chance to persecute anyone we can get our hands on.

“This is unreasonable!” we protest. We need a second objection: “Don’t you have any faith in your fellow Australians?”

Catholic schools educate around 20% of Australian children, with other independent schools making up another 15%. Based on the rhetoric of the anti-religious freedom campaign, you would expect these schools to be charnel-houses of bigotry. Likewise the parish, hospital, neighbourhood where “Australians of faith” are in the majority.

This cynical strategy is corrosive to our social fabric. It is corrosive because it encourages people to treat each other with suspicion, rather than with good faith. It is corrosive because it says that a person whose doctrines are different cannot possibly find it within themselves to see themselves in another. We are back at the parable of the Good Samaritan all over again.

This is not to say that we ought to have absolute faith that others will always do good, as we do in the Lord. Mistakes get made, people give in to their cruel and dark impulses. The Church knows this all too well; we are taught to be wise as well as gentle. But we should have faith that people are worth forgiving, and are capable of conversion, growth and learning hard truths.

The alternative is, ironically, a world structured purely by rights. Where good faith, forgiveness, dialogue, love and repentance fail, the government and the courts must step in and use the threat of law and punishment to keep us apart.

Even though we need rights in our fallen world, they represent a response to the tragedy of sin and a failure of communion. Where the Spirit of God prevails and people love one another, “against such things there is no law” (Gal 5:23).

The Christian religion does not believe that a fallen and suspicious world is the final destination of humankind. Nor will the collapse of this bill be the final say on the religious freedom question in Australia. Just have faith.


Q@A with John Steenhof human rights lawyer

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