Wednesday, July 17, 2024
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Leading religious freedom scholar visits ACT

Michael Casey
Michael Casey
Michael Casey is Director of the PM Glynn Institute at the Australian Catholic University.
Helen Alvare. Photo:

The 2024 Tim Fischer Oration on Ethics in Public and Political Life will be delivered by leading religious freedom scholar Professor Helen Alvaré, of the George Mason University, Virginia, US. It is an event you will not want to miss.   

Professor Alvaré is a courageous participant in academic and popular debates. Her books and articles tackle religious freedom and conscience protection for individuals and institutions, the right to life and the protection of the unborn, marriage and the protection of the interests of women and children, Christian feminism, the sexualisation of children, domestic violence law, hate crimes and free speech, and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. 

Professor Alvaré is a gifted speaker and not afraid to talk about tough topics. She does this with exceptional grace, good humour and immense learning.  

She has reflected deeply about her faith, and her talks and witness give encouragement to others to be strong in their faith and speak about it with confidence.  

For 10 years in the 1990s Professor Alvaré worked for the US Catholic Bishops Conference as director of communications for the bishops’ pro-life work, lobbying Congress on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, and speaking about these issues regularly to the media and the public.  

In 2003, she chaired a commission for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia investigating its handling of complaints of clerical sexual abuse, working with the chief of police and survivors of abuse.  

In 2021 Pope Francis appointed Professor Alvaré to the Vos Estis Commission, which assists smaller countries in their procedures for dealing with complaints of abuse against bishops.  

She is also a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and a delegate of the Holy See on women’s rights to the Organisation of American States. 

Professor Alvaré’s visit in August will not be her first to Australia—on one of her previous visits she spoke at World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008.   

Her visit this year however coincides with increasing pressures on religious freedom and the freedom of Catholic schools, hospitals and aged care to provide their services in accordance with Catholic beliefs.  

Efforts to legislate protection from religious discrimination at the Commonwealth level seem to have stalled, while the Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended several changes to existing federal discrimination laws, which if accepted may severely limit the freedom of religious schools to teach their beliefs and to maintain a cohesive body of staff who share and uphold the faith of the school.  

Encroachments on the freedom of religious communities to organise their own affairs and to deliver their services consistent with their beliefs are emerging in anti-conversion, anti-discrimination laws and reports from government commissions.  

Euthanasia laws have uneven protections for religious freedom and conscience, and a Catholic public hospital in Canberra has been taken over by the government.  

For Catholics there are further challenges. Opposition to abortion is now seen by some as an attack on a fundamental human right. Refusal to facilitate euthanasia for people who are suffering is seen as both a lack of compassion and a lack of respect for individual autonomy.   

Upholding Christian wisdom about marriage, sexuality, and what it means to be created male and female in the image and likeness of God, is seen as judgmental and exclusionary.  

It will be great to hear what Helen Alvaré has to say at the Tim Fischer Oration on 7 August. Those who hear her will come away with renewed confidence in giving the reasons for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15) to a world where hope sometimes seems to be in short supply. 

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