At the beginning of each new year, I generally like to dedicate a column to foreshadowing some of the big topics which we will be covering in the next twelve months.
As I sat down to write a list of the big challenges which lie before us as Catholics this year, I realised that they will all come up in the next few weeks. There is definitely no opportunity for us to take a “slow and steady” start to 2017!
From Monday, 6 February onwards, there will be a three-week “Catholic wrap up” hearing at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Unlike previous public hearings, this hearing will not focus on a particular diocese, school or parish, perpetrator or victim.
Instead, it will look at the Catholic Church in itself, in an attempt to figure out why there has been such our disgraceful history of abuse.
This means that the hearing will discuss the Church’s theology and doctrine, structure and governance, including the role of the Vatican and canon law, and issues like celibacy, confession and more.
As we all know, everyone – Catholic or not – has an opinion on what is wrong with the Church. During these three weeks, there will be a lot of difficult things said, and we can anticipate that the media will report (and sometimes misreport) only the most sensational of what is presented.
In that same week, on Friday, 10 February, submissions close into an inquiry which is looking at the status of freedom of religion globally and in Australia, and the efforts being taken by governments and non-government organisations to protect this right.
At the beginning of the following week, on Monday, 13 February, a Senate Committee tasked with inquiring into the potential impacts of the redefinition of marriage on religious freedom will hand down its report. At the moment, it is proposed that if same-sex marriage was to become legal, only ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and Church organisations would be given any protection for religious freedom and even then, only to the extent that they would be allowed to decline to solemnise or host a same-sex wedding on their premises.
All other rights, including the rights of wedding service providers like bakers and florists and photographers to not participate in same-sex weddings, the right of parents to have a say in what their children are taught about marriage at school, and the right of ordinary Australians to express the view that marriage is between a man and a woman would not be protected.
Also in February, state and federal Parliaments will resume their work, and there are a number of issues which we know will come up for debate at the beginning of the parliamentary year. In federal parliament, we will see a continuation of the push to legalise same-sex marriage. With the plebiscite voted down in the Senate towards the end of last year and no clear way forward for legislative change, we can expect that those advocating to change the law will be trying new methods to pressure politicians to make the change, particularly in the lead up to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras on 4 March.
The euthanasia debate will begin in earnest in Victoria when its parliament resumes. At the end of last year, Premier Daniel Andrews announced that his government would introduce the first government- sponsored euthanasia bill into the Victorian parliament. It appears that all members of Parliament will be given a conscience vote on the matter, and so we will see significant debate on end of life issues in the early part of this year.
And finally, a number of states and territories will also be debating the abortion issue in the early part of this year. The Northern Territory is currently holding a consultation around its abortion laws. At the moment, abortions are only permitted if they take place in a hospital, but it is proposed that the law be changed to allow abortions to take place anywhere, even in remote parts of the territory where other medical or pregnancy assistance is not available.
Queensland and New South Wales, the only two states in Australia where abortion remains a crime (albeit under laws which are never enforced), there will be continued campaigns to have abortion completely decriminalised and treated like any other medical procedure.
In each of these places, abortion advocates will also push for laws which will create “buffer zones” around abortion clinics, preventing anyone who opposes abortion from coming within 150 metres of a clinic, even if it is to offer assistance or prayers. It is not bad behaviour that these laws will be seeking to prohibit, but “unacceptable opinions.”
This list might appear exhausting, but it is by no means exhaustive. Even in the early part of this year, there will be many opportunities for us to raise our voices in defence of our faith, of marriage and of the family. I look forward to tackling these issues with you in the weeks and months ahead.