Australians should not take their religious liberty for granted, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP warned during a lecture he gave on religious freedom in Sydney last night.
“Independent reports on religious liberty worldwide suggest that Christians have never before been persecuted as they are right now,” the Archbishop told those gathered at Warrane College UNSW for the annual Warrane Lecture.
“There are more martyrdoms each year than there were at the height of the persecutions by the Roman emperors.”
“The risk for Australians is that because we are free of that sort of persecution we don’t recognise more subtle forms.”
The was standing room only to hear the annual lecture which dates back to 1971 and has been given by dignitaries including John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull. Many students of Warrane College were present to hear the Archbishop’s address titled, ‘In Saecula Saeculorum: Secularism and Religious Freedom’.
While announcing the defeat of the euthanasia bill in the Senate, 36 votes to 34, Archbishop Fisher said the recent legalisation of euthanasia in Victoria “represents not only the first state-sanctioned killing of citizens in that state since the abolition of capital punishment, but also new challenges for people of traditional ethics practising healthcare or running health or aged care facilities.”
Our culture is becoming “less and less tolerant” of religion, the Archbishop said. He referred to the recent legal redefinition of marriage and the requirement placed on doctors in some jurisdictions forcing them to assist in or refer for abortions.
He also expressed concern about efforts to protect religious freedom such as the Review of Religious Liberty Protections led by Hon Phillip Ruddock.
“After several months the Commonwealth government has still not released the report or indicated how it will respond, if at all,” Archbishop Fisher commented.
He emphasised the importance of upholding a healthy separation of Church and State and lamented recent overstepping of that divide.
“… the recent legislation, proposed or enacted in several states and territories in Australia to force priests to break the seal of confession attempts no such balance: it simply rides roughshod over belief and believers, and thus of the traditional Church-State divide.”
Religious freedom is not an “exemption or exception” from the norms of justice, he said.
“Rather, justice requires respect for religious freedom.”
Without religious freedom, he said, religious bodies would not be able to carry out the numerous good works they perform in service of others.
The Archbishop recounted the services provided by the Catholic Church in Australia, including 1400 parishes, 1700 schools, 10,000 hospital beds, 20,000 aged care places, and 45,000 tertiary education places. The Catholic Church is the biggest pastoral care provider in the country and the biggest non-government educator, employer and charity, he said.
An even more fundamental reason for freedom of religion is that religion is a good in itself, the Archbishop said, and leads to human flourishing.
“To pursue the good of religion is to consider whether there is a greater-than-human source of all that is, and of the truth, beauty and goodness of such things, and then to respond by way of personal prayer, common worship, further theologising, sharing that with others, enacting it in works of charity…”
“To do these things, alongside pursuing the other basic goods of human flourishing, is how human beings find fulfilment.”
Read Archbishop Fisher’s lecture in full here