Monica Doumit: Does the end justify the means?

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Senator Kristina Keneally speaks to the crowd during the Let Them Stay! Emergency Rally at Martin Place in Sydney, on Sunday, 1 September 2019. Photo: AAP, Joel Carrett

“The Prime Minister is a father and I appeal to him as a parent and as a Christian to look into his heart and decide what the generous Christian response here is,” said Senator Kristina Keneally.

She was speaking, of course, of the plan to deport the Murugappan family, who arrived in Australia from Sri Lanka and settled in Biloela before being taken to immigration detention and then told they would be deported and returned to Sri Lanka in recent weeks, and was specifically calling out Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and his Christianity.

To be honest, I don’t think any of us know enough about the detail of the Murugappan family’s situation to have a truly informed opinion about their claim for refugee status.

On the one hand, the decision to refuse them refugee status has been confirmed by numerous courts on appeal, each of which would have had access to all the relevant details about their claim for asylum.

On the other hand, I’m sure we can all think of cases where appeal courts have got a decision disastrously wrong and an injustice resulted.

The commentary that follows is more about the general principle than the family involved who, I hope, has some resolution to their saga soon.

Whatever the correct outcome for this particular family is, I found it interesting that Senator Keneally was criticised for challenging the Prime Minister about his Christian faith particularly when, as a number of commentators pointed out, the Senator has taken positions on issues of abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage that were in opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church of which she is a member.

A few said the Senator’s stance was hypocritical, but I disagree. The Senator is not being hypocritical; she is being consistent. In the case of the Murugappan family, the Senator is proposing that the Christian response is to dispense with the law in order to avoid or reduce suffering.

This takes a utilitarian position on the laws that govern this country because utilitarianism tells us that the ends justify the means. In this particular case, the “end” of trying to save a family from deportation justifies the means of ignoring immigration laws and policies.

I would suggest that this is entirely consistent with the approach the Senator takes to other difficult and even heartbreaking issues.

Consider her position on abortion. Senator Keneally has recently said that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

The Senator doesn’t want abortion to be common, so it must be that it is only reserved for the more difficult cases. Similarly, on euthanasia, the Senator told Parliament last year that she had no “in principle” opposition to it but wanted to ensure that there were safeguards for vulnerable people and that palliative care was well-funded.

Kristina Kenneally
Together with Francis Sullivan, Senator Kristina Kenneally forms a duo of high-profile dissident Catholics on numerous Church practices or teachings. PHOTO: AAP/Alan Porritt

Again, it seems that the Senator’s opposition to killing is reassessed for more difficult cases, which is another exercise in utilitarian logic. And of course, traditional marriage laws should be ignored to avoid harming same-sex couples who love each other.

The Senator’s position is not hypocritical. There is a consistency in her approach to the law and its link to Christianity: the law is good, but the “Christian response” is to change or ignore it in cases where we want a different result.

Respectfully, I disagree.

Provided, of course, the law we are speaking about is a just law, it is the consistent application of the law, and not the arbitrary dispensation of it, that is closer to the “Christian” response.

There is a legal maxim that says hard cases make bad law and that is very true.
Hard cases first gave us laws that permitted abortion in instances of rape or incest or foetal abnormality or threats to the mother’s health, and have led to a bill before parliament that could see abortion up until birth legalised for “social” reasons.

Hard cases gave us euthanasia in Victoria and the push for the same in other states.

Hard cases gave us divorce-on-demand and a society where the number of couples divorcing are likely only outstripped by those never marrying in the first place.

And hard cases gave us same-sex adoption and same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research and all other manner of things. And that’s just at a political level.

In the Church, dispensing with the law when it got too hard gave us bad liturgies, a lack of preaching on sin and its consequences, Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, the ongoing push for women’s ordination and on and on and on.

The application of the law is not the opposite of the Christian response. The Christian response is not ignoring the law, but following it, even when it becomes a cross we have to bear.