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In 2023, the passing of Pope Benedict XVI was only the beginning

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Photo by Giovanni Portelli Photography 2022

This has been a massive year, hasn’t it? In the final hours of 2022, we heard the news that Pope Benedict XVI had entered eternal life. We were still catching our collective breath from the loss of this giant of the Catholic faith when we unexpectedly lost our dear Cardinal George Pell.

The shock of his death, the mourning and the planning of his funeral saw January blitz by.

At the end of the month, just the week before the Cardinal’s funeral, the Australian Law Reform Commission released its consultation paper on “Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws,” outlining proposals that would significantly limit the ability of Catholic and other faith-based schools to maintain their religious nature.

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Of particular note was the proposal that a school should be able to require religious education teachers to teach the faith of the school but could not prevent them from offering their own view, even if inconsistent with the religious beliefs they were paid to teach.

As the funeral of Cardinal Pell approached, we received news of a planned protest. At one stage it looked like the protest would proceed down College St, right past the cathedral, as the funeral began.

In the week following the Cardinal’s funeral, then-opposition leader Chris Minns announced he would legislate a ban on so-called conversion practices if Labor won the next election. This announcement led to a similar, if more restrained, announcement from the then-premier, Dominic Perrottet. This meant that conversion therapy became an election issue.

March saw the NSW Labor government elected, and the first time in decades that there was no explicitly Christian party on the upper house crossbench. In April, a parliamentary committee of the ACT issued a report that criticised the over-arching religious ethos of Calvary Hospital and its unwillingness to provide abortions. By 10 May, the ACT Government announced it would forcibly acquire the hospital, its assets, operations and staff and the law was passed in a single day without debate.

June saw the independent member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich, announce his intention to table three bills to push a radical LGBTQ+ and anti-religion agenda through the NSW parliament, a NSW Law Reform Commission inquiry seeking to overhaul anti-discrimination laws (including religious exemptions) began in July, and the NSW Government’s “confidential” consultation on conversion therapy started in August.

Each of these issues continued to roll through our parliaments during September, and then seemed exceedingly insignificant during October, which commenced with the terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israeli citizens and the subsequent (and continuing) retaliation, as well as the referendum on the Voice to Parliament.

By the way, in the midst of all this World Youth Day Lisbon took place in August—with thousands of Sydney pilgrims, staff, teachers and organisers making their way through the Holy Land, Italy and Portugal in a European heatwave. Then in October the first assembly of the Synod on Synodality was occurring in Rome after months of regional meetings and preparation.

In November, the euthanasia and assisted suicide passed in NSW last year came into effect, and I imagine that news of the first euthanasia deaths in this state will have broken by the time this paper goes to print. As Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said, 28 November 2023 was a very dark day in the history of NSW.

By the end of December, the Australian Law Reform Commission will have provided its recommendations on religious schools to the Attorney-General, and we will soon know how much of a fight we will have to protect our schools come 2024.

If you’re feeling a little exhausted by all the politics, the relentless attacks on religious faith at an individual and institutional level, and by the sheer volume of events, this brief recap of the year that was might explain why. Keeping track of these issues is my full-time job, and even I find it difficult to be alert to the many different fronts on which we are called to fight.

I am also conscious that these larger, political skirmishes are just a small slice of the other battles faced by Catholics, and so I am grateful to each of you for the way in which you engage in them with fidelity to God, deep concern for the common good and a tireless commitment to the truth. I hope this final week leading up to Christmas and the holiday period after gives you time to rest and renew your strength: heaven knows that we will need you back on the battlefield next year.

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