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Should bakers be required to bake gay wedding cakes? 2015 Acton Lecture

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher at the 2015 Acton Lecture. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Anthony Fisher at the 2015 Acton Lecture. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Democracy and religious liberty in Australia

The year is 2025 – nine years after a plebiscite narrowly approved same-sex “marriage” and Parliament amended the Marriage Act and many other laws to remove all references to “a man and a woman”, “husband and wife” and “mother and father”.

After an initial flurry of rather colourful same-sex “weddings”, numbers have now plateaued to only a few hundred each year.

Sociologists debate the long-term effects on public understandings of marriage and family. Certainly there have been political ramifications: no major party allows dissenters on this issue; this caused some significant haemorrhaging from Parliament before the 2019 election; even for most “independents”, going against “the tide of history” on this matter is regarded as disadvantageous.

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While provisions in the Marriage (Marriage Equality Amendment) Act exempting Registered Ministers of Religion and Registered Places of Worship from taking part in “gay weddings” have continued to stand in law, the High Court has ruled that section 116 of the Constitution does not protect faith-based schools from having to teach a “gay friendly” state-imposed curriculum; continuing to teach that marriage is an opposite-sex union was held by a majority of the Justices to be motivated by outmoded and bigoted attitudes and to be harmful to children.

Already one Catholic bishop has been briefly gaoled for refusing to apply the state-approved “LGBTIQQ Safety Protocols and Awareness Program” to the schools in his diocese; and parents at Jewish and Muslim schools have been advised that they may not withdraw their children from such programs.

Many clergy and teachers in faith-based schools have been cowed with threats of prosecution for “hate speech” if they teach that divine law limits marriage to people of opposite sex. There are also actions pending against Evangelical Christian and Maronite Catholic business owners for failing to provide photography, stretch limousine and hospitality services for “gay weddings”.

Greens and others have used this issue to chip away at the remaining “exemptions” and “benefits” enjoyed by churches and faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies. Government schools in most states no longer allow Scripture classes and church-based adoption services were forced to close. Religious organisations are now required to extend spousal benefits to same-sex “married” employees, have lost their charitable status, and now pay the same taxes and rates levied on any other business.

By 2025 public speeches and debates on same-sex “marriage” and like issues are rare as few organisations and venues are willing to risk the vilification that follows upon hosting them. The idea that marriage is a natural institution that precedes states and religions, that it is founded on sexual complementarity and oriented to family formation, is now regarded as unspeakable in the public square – though from time to time the usual suspects still raise it in their “extreme right-wing” think-tanks, newspaper columns or pulpits.

Will all this come to pass in the decade ahead and, if so, what does it say about the quality of our democracy right now and about our nation’s particular take on secularity and religious freedom?

Many years ago, when I was still a young priest and academic, the commentator B.A. Santamaria asked me how it was that I was so optimistic about our culture. I responded that it was probably partly temperamental, partly my reading of the trends, and partly a matter of theological hope. He responded that he was not as naturally sunny in temper as I was, that he read the trends in our civilisation more pessimistically, and that Christian faith only promises things will turn out for the best “in the end”: in the meantime, things could get very bleak indeed!

In this lecture, I will turn first to the political theology of Pope Francis. In the second part, I will use that theology as a prism through which to examine the state of democracy in contemporary Australia. And finally, I will ask how we might preserve a space for religious liberty in Australia.

  1. Is the pope a watermelon? Pope Francis on expecting more from democracies

1.1. Francis on constructing a natural and human “ecology” that is pro-God, pro-creation and pro-people

In his encyclical letter Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home, and a number of very recent speeches, Pope Francis has articulated the idea of an integral ecologism that is pro-God, pro-creation and pro-people, and what this might mean for politics as well as personal life, including respect for religious liberty.

For touching on matters such as anthropogenic climate change and other ill-effects of a technocratic, consumerist culture the Pope has been characterized by some as a “watermelon” – green outside and red within. Yet no usual member of the watermelon commentariat would be so forthright in insisting that human beings are not pollution, their population growth not the problem; that we must respect our natures as male or female and the implications for self-image, relationships and institutions such as marriage; that the “little ones” most at risk are not merely the economically poor, but the unborn and the spiritually poor; and that we must seek not merely political or financial solutions but moral and spiritual ones and not expect governments to solve everything for us.

In some ways, Pope Francis’s call to asceticism, and his attention to the local and personal, are very traditional. Much of what he says about ecology rebrands things long said under other labels such as “the natural and supernatural economies”, avarice, sobriety, temperance, fasting and conversion. Of course, there is a particularFranciscan attention to the limits properly imposed upon our ambitions by our natural environment and the needs of the poor. But where the papacy long resisted the democratizing impulses of the age, Francis like his recent predecessors seems to presume the moral superiority of democracy over other experiments in government and to be asking more of them.

What is that more? For one thing, it is breadth of vision. The starting point for Laudato Si’ is “that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself”. Our natural and social ecologies are profoundly interconnected: true reverence for one (for instance, for forests or seals) must complement reverence for the other (fellow citizens, refugees, the unborn); neglect or misuse of one often overflows to the other; and all these interrelate in complex ways with our sense of transcendent value, of the supernatural ecology. What is required, he thinks, is a sense of these interconnections, an ability to look beyond the immediate and comfortable, and a willingness to take courageous and farsighted action.

1.2. Francis on the potential and shortcomings of contemporary democracies

Though widely acclaimed for his positive and non-judgmental manner, Francis can be a sharp critic and readily names the failures of contemporary democracies to address some natural and social challenges. All too often, he suggests, our leaders seem driven by the desire for short-term success and to be ready to appease various interests or their electorate with “bread and circuses”. Such approaches lead not only to bad policy, but also to disengagement by ordinary people from politics. Continuing in this way, he warns apocalyptically, will make electorates cynical, will hurt especially the poor, and will leave future generations only “debris, desolation and filth”.

True statecraft, he insists, is principled statecraft: even in difficult times it respects rights, pursues the common good, and enables intermediate groups such as churches and families to play their essential subsidiary role.

In the shadow of that encyclical, Francis recently took the challenge of true statecraft to a joint session of Congress. High sounding visions and principles are not enough, he insisted. Statecraft is a practical art: it is intended to achieve things. “You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face”, he said. Thus “a good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism”, initiating improvements for others rather than merely protecting his/her own interests, “restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and peoples”.

Francis further developed this call to a principled and practical statesmanship when he addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. Politics must be people-centred, he insisted. The “economic and social exclusion” of some by those lucky enough to possess much denies fraternity, offends against human rights and is irreverent toward creation and Creator. Constantly aware of the real people who stand “above and beyond” all plans and programmes, “government leaders must do all they can to ensure people have the spiritual and material means necessary to live in dignity and support a family”. This minimum includes not only food, housing and work, but also religious liberty and access to education, culture and the natural environment.

A right relationship to “our common home” is premised upon a sense of universal fraternity and deep respect for the sacredness of every human person. Without such commitments, even great democracies will fail to deliver what human beings most need.

1.3. Francis on the spiritual and moral underpinnings of democracy

Pope Francis’s next address on these matters was at the place in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was signed. I was there to hear him read from the lectern used by Lincoln for his Gettysburg Address. Citing that declaration and that great President, he highlighted that the dignity and equality of every human being, “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” which governments exist not to invent but to protect. Each generation must re-appropriate, re-articulate and re-enact those foundational values if a democracy is to remain true to itself and achieve its high purposes.

In that speech as in many other places, Pope Francis identified respect for the democratic ideal of religious liberty as an essential pre-condition of peaceful coexistence, of an enriching pluralism, and of friendship and collaboration between people of different spiritual traditions. Democracies ignore religions at their peril. Religious communities play a crucial role in reminding democracies “of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of any claim to absolute power”. Precisely because it reminds us that there is more to creation than ourselves, that we are creatures and not gods, religious faith well-lived provides the wherewithal to resist mandated orthodoxies and totalising ideologies.

If religion is to continue making this contribution to democratic societies, it must not be reduced “to a subculture without the right to a voice in the public square”. The right “to worship God, individually and in community, as conscience dictates”, is certainly part of what religious freedom means. “But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families” and must be respected and valued in the public square as well.

Reiterating what he has said on many occasions, the Holy Father recognized that in this “age of martyrs” the religious liberty of Christians and other minorities is now openly attacked in places such as Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and North Korea; but it can also be compromised in contemporary democracies. Driving religion from the public square and hollowing it out from the inside by reducing it to rituals and private beliefs undermines democratic foundations. If democracies are yet to do great things they must maintain and renew their founding ideals.

Following his predecessors Pope Francis has set the bar high for democracy, emphasizing in particular a visionary, principled and practical statesmanship that reverences God and people, especially the weak. How, by those standards, are we faring in Australia?

  1. The state of democracy in contemporary Australia

2.1. Coup capital of the democratic world

“Coup capital of the democratic world”: so Canberra was recently labelled by the BBC. Commentators have compared Australian government in the post Hawke-Keating-Howard period with a Tarantino film and dubbed leadership spills our national sport. Without commenting on the quality of our Prime Ministers, six in eight years and four in only 27 months, mostly at the hands of representatives rather than electors, is extraordinary.

Several commentators think our revolving door leadership is a sign of malaise in our democratic ideals and practice. They have noted apathy, distrust, even cynicism, among ordinary people about politicians and their antics; complacency, intellectual torpor and other diminishment in debate and policy-making; decline in Cabinet process and teamwork, including internecine leaking that makes confident leadership and confidential discussion impossible; blindly adversarial and obstructionist postures by government, opposition and minority parties, that paralyse governments to affect the policies for which they are elected; governments that appeal to the basest fears rather than the noblest aspirations of their electorates (for instance, over refugee policy); electorates that punish leaders who embrace sound policies that come with short-term pain (such as higher taxes or reduced benefits);over-responsiveness of representatives and commentators to opinion polls, the 24/7 news cycle and spin; and a ruthlessly anti-authoritarian media culture that discourages quality candidates from offering themselves for political service.

2.2. The need for a transcendent perspective

This year marks the eight-hundredth anniversary of that Magna Carta which King John signed in the hope of buying collaboration from his rebellious barons and the barons signed in the hope of limiting state power with principles against arbitrary imprisonment, fines and the like. The charter is an important marker in the evolution of those ideals, dispositions and traditions of practice that underpin our version of democracy.

Here we meet the first stirrings of the notion that good government requires the consent of the governed. As Lord Acton observed, following not Lincoln but Thomas Aquinas, “legislation ought to be for the people and by the people”. Yet respect for the general will is not enough to ensure good government. So the charter began to articulate the principles grounding various checks upon the evanescent will of electors and elected which have evolved since – such as constitutions, upper houses, cabinets and committees, the public service, the courts of law, natural justice, parliamentary conventions and protocols. Such principles are in need of rearticulation today, for as Lord Acton observed, though democracy is far to be preferred to tyrannies, the “one pervading evil of democracy” is that “the majority, or rather of that party that succeeds” can be tyrannical also.

Magna Carta is, in fact, a rather religious document. Its self-described purpose is to honour God, exalt holy Church and better order the Kingdom. In it King John acknowledges that he rules “under God” and that the rights and responsibilities recognized in the charter are God-given rather than his inventions; to fail to recognize them would, the document claims, imperil the king’s soul.

The Constitution of Australia, though more modern, reflects the fact that our particular take on democracy, like that of Britain and the United States, is hugely influenced by our Judeo-Christian inheritance. It records that the decision “to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown” relied upon three things: the consent of the people of the several states, the sovereign power of the king in parliament and, thirdly, “the blessing of Almighty God”.

Some would dismiss all this constitutional god-talk along with prayer in parliament as mere flourish to add gravitas or heirlooms of a by-gone age: Australia, they might say, ain’t that way anymore. In next year’s census, the “no religion” option will be placed at the top of religion-identifying question for the first time, as if it were now the default position; pundits expect a leap in the number identifying as “none” from the 20 per cent who did so in 2011 and a consequential decline in the 60 per cent who identified as Christian.

There are other signs of fading religiosity in Australia and many people seem happy to identify as Christian, live as practical agnostics, but draw upon the inherited spiritual-social capital of religious beliefs and practices, even as ideological elites seek to reduce that influence in law and culture.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton – the Lord Acton for whom this lecture is named – joined Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, G.K. Chesterton and others in viewing the state as a partnership between the living, the dead and those yet to come, between science, art, virtue and religion, always working to improve the lot of the members. Though none was a fan of theocracy or ideology, they were equally wary of a democracy without respect for tradition and without a vision beyond the present.

Just as a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have abandoned their ancestors’ views on faith and law, life and love, so political elites and opinion-makers in Australia commonly press it in a more secularist direction. In 1992, the American Court famously shunned all religious, customary or objectivist accounts of early human life and morality, declaring in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. This year the court did the same for marriage. As Chief Justice Roberts said, dissenting in Obergefell v. Hodges, today:

“the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

Much might be said about postmodernity’s denial of metanarratives and “thick conceptions of the good”, but let me mention just one effect I think worthy of consideration. It is often observed that for all the government’s intergenerational reports, ours is the least fertile generation in history; and that for all the rhetoric about infrastructure, our generation is the least likely to construct it.

I believe our failure to add much to the stock of rail, water, sewerage and other infrastructure inherited from our answers and our failure even to replace ourselves in population terms are connected. Projects of the scale of the Snowy Mountains Scheme required leaders and participants who cared deeply about the future: they knew it would be their descendants, not themselves, who would benefit.

But our democracy today lacks “transcendent” vision, not just in the sense of a vision of the sacred but also ofhope: a vision of a future for our descendants and an eternity in which unnoticed good will yet be rewarded. As children and grandchildren loom much smaller in the public consciousness, we are less likely to sacrifice for their sake in politics or elsewhere.

Whether enlightenment liberalism or a more watermelon-hued political correctness can provide for our democracy the transcendent authority and horizon beyond self-interest it needs is yet to be demonstrated.

2.3. The need for civil discourse: The case of the same-sex marriage “debate”

Eight centuries ago, rights-talk was less fashionable than it is today: yet already people were aware of duties owed and grievances sustained. The first right recognised in the Magna Carta was religious liberty; the ecclesia Anglicana was to be free to order her affairs and enjoy her liberties “unimpaired”. We are heirs to the idea that religion, in the very broad sense of speculation about the higher order of things, or the ultimate ground of reality, and consequent honour or worship for the Person(s) or good beyond the here and now, is a universal good. People should in general be free to search and find and believe what they will religiously, and given a wide latitude to worship and live according to their conscientious beliefs. This is not a case of making exceptions for benighted eccentrics, but a recognition of something essential to human flourishing and enriching for the community. The right to the free exercise of religion is recognized in multiple international treaties.

I will not rehearse my case for marriage as traditionally understood and for retaining that understanding of marriage in our laws which I have offered on other occasions. I would like to reflect instead upon the conduct of the public “debate” on this issue so far and what this reveals about the state of our democracy.

When people like me and some of you enter the fray on marriage, we now expect to be tagged “ultra-conservative”, “tedious imbecile”, “delusional nutter”, “evangelical clap-trapper” and even “nauseating piece of filth” not just in the anti-social media but even in mainstream. But what is new is that such ad hominem now hails not just from fevered activists and net trolls but from respected journalists and public figures.

The ABC’s Q&A programme intrudes the same-sex issue, whatever the published topic of the evening; but even when a whole episode is devoted to debating the question it is very clear that only one view will gain serious attention. A number of commentators have noted the biased reporting on the same-sex marriage issue in many media outlets and the refusal of some to allow even paid advertisements for the other side. When the ABC’sMedia Watch said it was time to give both sides a hearing, it was roundly scolded on the basis that hate has no rights and that it is “false balance” to give the pro-traditional-marriage side any attention at all.

Closed-mindedness is, of course, no monopoly of people engaging on same-sex “marriage”. But I think the refusal to listen is presently mostly on one side. Those in favour of the traditional understanding of marriage know their opponents’ slogans and arguments well: “tolerance and diversity”, “love is love”, “no to hate” – hence “marriage equality”. But advocates of “gay marriage” seem to think no reasonable person could think other than as they do; that not only are they right on this issue, but that their opponents are irrational and operating out of blind traditionalism or, more likely, hatred.

This is surely one of the strangest aspects of the “debate” so far: that the understanding of marriage found in pretty well every serious civilisation, legal system, religion and philosophy until recently – that marriage brings together a man and a woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children that follow from their marital union – is now incomprehensible, even unspeakable, for many of our intelligentsia, journalists, politicians and business leaders.

As Brendan O’Neill observed, “a chokingly conformist climate” now prevails on this and many other issues in Australia, so that those who dare to disagree will be demonised, harassed and marginalized rather than refuted. That the Catholic Archbishop in Tasmania has been taken to that state’s anti-discrimination commission for distributing a joint bishops’ pastoral letter on marriage is a sign of how far things have gone and are likely to go in the near future if not resisted.

2.4. Religious liberty at risk

Same-sex “marriage” proponent, Senator Penny Wong, has insisted that there is nothing to fear from “marriage equality”, that religious liberty will be unaffected, and that those who support traditional understandings of marriage are “stubbornly clinging to discriminatory laws” and only offer arguments that are “increasingly irrational”. Such claims of bigotry and irrationality are strange given that Wong herself opposed the redefinition until fairly recently. In any case, international experience of redefining marriage belies Wong’s optimism about religious liberty.

In the joint pastoral letter of Australia’s bishops for which Archbishop Porteous of Hobart is being prosecuted, the bishops noted many examples of individuals and groups who have suffered vilification, financial, social or legal sanction for holding to traditional marriage in places that have legislated for same-sex marriage or civil unions. Since that pastoral was published there have been more cases.

Ministers of religion and places of worship may receive niggardly “exemptions” in such regimes, but ordinary believers and their businesses are given no leeway and even religious institutions such as schools, hospitals and welfare agencies expected to tow the PC line. Some Australian civil liberties commentators fear that were same-sex “marriage” legalised here the power of the state will be similarly mobilised against dissenters. In the Tasmanian case, the complainant seeks not to have the Archbishop sanctioned but also to have all Church schools forced to promote LGBTI “awareness”, tolerance and behaviour.

In early 2013, lesbian couple Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman asked the Oregon bakery Sweet Cakes to bake a same-sex wedding cake for them. Although bakery owners Melissa and Aaron Klein had always served all comers, they believed that baking a distinctively same-sex wedding cake would be facilitating a same-sex “wedding” and explained that this would violate their religious belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Cryer and Bowman filed a complaint that they had suffered discrimination based on sexual orientation and the government agency upheld that complaint. Meanwhile the baker couple faced vilification, boycotts of their business, violent protests and even death threats, and were forced to close their shop and work from home. They were then fined $135,000 and encouraged to receive behaviour modification therapy so they could be rehabilitated.

Even if it would not have been unethical for bakers to assist a same-sex “wedding” in so remote a way, “democracy” degenerates into despotism when it licences such vilification of people’s conscientious beliefs.

  1. Preserving a space for religious liberty in Australia

3.1. The Australian take on secularity

Tom Holland opens his book about the world around the year 1,000 AD with the fateful meeting between Pope Gregory VII and the Emperor Henry IV. In an age of caliphs and Viking raiders, knights and bishops jockeying for power, feudal vendettas and the rest, Western Europe emerged as a distinctive culture and expansionist power. At the heart of this, Holland argues, were the disappointment of millennial hopes and the settling of a new relationship between ecclesial and civil authority that gave Christendom its particular energy and focus.

There are many views of the proper relationship between Church (various faiths and their agencies) and State (civil government and its departments). Secularism, laicite or “the separation of Church and State” has many forms. What was essentially a millennial Christian contribution to our civilisation – reflected also in the great charter – has mutated in various ways and places.

In West Europe, for instance, as in the communist East of old, the tendency is to say with respect to Church and State that ne’er the twain shall meet. Governments and courts increasingly exclude faith-based organisations from decision-making and service delivery. Dogmatic secularists ban Christmas decorations from public places, church bells from towers, crucifixes from schools or nurses’ necks, and any residual religious values in law and policy. Some want believers to renounce their most deeply held beliefs or stay silent about them in the public square. Religion is thought to be so inherently backward, even dangerous, that the tag “believer” – let alone “ultra-Catholic” – disqualifies one from civil leadership.

If there are countries in which state or culture-imposed atheism is dominant, there are others in which religious leaders dictate terms to government and society, including to those who do not share their faith. In the nightmare of the Arab Spring turned Jihadi Winter, extremists seek to impose the only “pure” version of the only approved faith even on their co-religionists. While on Tom Holland’s view it was Christendom that first distinguished the spheres of God and Caesar, pope and emperor, to the great advantage of the development of the West, we know it suited many Christian leaders through the centuries to blur those lines; the same is so for some believers today. And there are still conceptions of Church and State that recognize no such line even to be blurred. In theocracies, as in secular tyrannies, either religion is in charge of everything or secular politics is, but no compromise between the two is possible.

As if supportive of this no compromise view, the United States seems to have the two extremes at once, with lots of public religious rhetoric, as if being religious is expected, and various bans on public religion, as if irreligion was compulsory. Bakers are fined and marriage registrars gaoled for refusing to go along with same-sex marriage, as if this were a dogma of the state religion.

Richard John Neuhaus famously thought an “iron curtain” or “wall of separation” had been erected between Church and State in America, so that that nation’s foundational ideals and people’s deepest convictions are now regularly ruled “out of bounds”; this leaves the public square so “naked” that Americans were unable to engage in the properly political task of determining how to live together.

Here in Australia, we distinguish between the spheres of activity proper to Church and State, each with its proper inspiration and responsibilities, instrumentalities and methods. Church and State in this country mostly leave each other alone. So far no bakers have been required to put two brides atop their cakes. Where the spheres of Church and State overlap, Australians have been inclined to a healthy, pragmatic cooperation for the public benefit rather than iron curtains or trench warfare. So we’ve had fruitful collaborations in law and policy, provision of education, health and aged care, and various welfare services, in special religious education in government schools, chaplaincies to state institutions, state funerals and so forth.

The biggest religious gathering, youth gathering, gathering of any sort in the history of our country – World Youth Day 2008 – was an example of this. Every sector of our community co-operated in the planning and delivery: not Catholics or Christians only, or the private non-profit sectors only, but practically everyone. That said something powerful which our visitors commented upon: that Church and State, people of various religions and none, can “live and let live”, give each other “a fair go”, honour diversity, seek common ground, and work together. But wherever religious liberty is at risk such coexistence and collaboration are also threatened.

3.2. Where to draw the line between claims of conscience and of law

A member of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently said that, sympathetic as she is to religious freedom, there’s a “zero-sum” game with respect to religious freedom and LGBT rights; instead of attempting to balance such competing liberties, society must opt for LGBT rights over religion every time. Several Justices in Obergefell acknowledged that would be the inevitable effect of the decision to legalize same-sex “marriage”.

Yet true democracy is a political order that acknowledges deeply held moral and religious convictions are important, permits differences in these matters and, as far as reasonable, allows expression of those differences in action or inaction on conscientious grounds. The democratic state concedes that people must obey both God and Caesar. That is why the various human rights instruments and their underpinning political philosophies acknowledge the right to hold different religious or moral convictions as a non-derogable right, and also rights to express those convictions in public and not be compelled to act against them, to be protected in this by the state and not denied it by powerful ideological, financial or majority-political interests.

Not that claims of conscience will always be trumps: as the centrality of the human person and the common good grounds respect for conscience, it also requires that practices like child sacrifice be forbidden. Beyond such extremes, considerable latitude is possible. But in post-modernity, having principles, internally consistent and embraced with passion over a long period, is not only less common but can seem unimaginative, even fanatical. The desire to “get along” may mean we give each other space to “do our own thing”; but we are left suspicious of what the other person’s “thing” might be and sceptical that there is any truth in matters of life and love. As conscience reduces to personal tastes, respect for its claims are harder to sustain.

Thus while totalitarian secularists will concede some pleas of conscience to oddballs, they aim to rid law and policy of any whiff of incense and are inclined to view conscience claims as marginal, even anti-social. Beyond a narrow field for worship, they would similarly reduce the scope of religious liberty.


The year is 2025 – nine years after the plebiscite to redefine marriage was defeated, partly because most Australians still treasured marriage as traditionally understood, partly because they thought government had no business regulating other friendships, partly because they were convinced a mature democracy does not rush into such important decisions and partly because they feared “marriage equality” would make Australians less equal in matters of faith and conscience.

Rather than taking the divisive turn proposed back in 2015, other signs of respect for people with same-sex attraction have been embraced by most Australians. Terms like “man and wife” and “mother and father” survive in law and practice, and new measures help support marriages and marriage-based families. A robust but courteous debate continues, but most agree the decade-long exercise of patience and respect in pursuit of a moral consensus in this area has demonstrated democratic maturity and strengthened, not diminished, common life.

In this 2025, faiths still play a major role in our community as providers of much human and supernatural support, of formation in crucial moral and political values, and as providers of charitable services in education, health and aged care, welfare and the like. Believers feel supported rather than threatened by the state in holding their high ideals and there is healthy dialogue between people of different faiths and between believers and “nones”.

Australians are proud of their historic “compact” between Church and State, freedom of conscience and the rule of law – all the more so in a world where too many countries take a less tolerant direction and whole populations have suffered persecution, exile or death as a result. Most agree we should resist totalizing ideologies that would seriously upset that historical balance. Most want our bakers to be left to bake good cakes, unencumbered by such ideologies.

My more sanguine 2025 required people back in 2015 to embrace the mission of not only rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure, but also renewing its spiritual capital so that it might be visionary, principled and practical, with a right reverence for God and people – to use Pope Francis II’s inherited tests of democratic health.

Having and following principles, internally consistent and embraced with passion but also publicly contestable, is not only regarded as epistemically and psychologically defensible, but also socially and politically essential.

Forming people in such ideals and giving them confidence in their application was something to which the Church devoted much energy in the intervening decade. Teachers, scholars, lawmakers, commentators and other thoughtful individuals have made important contributions to renewal of our democracy.

“Liberty,” as Lord Acton observed, “is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought”. In the 2010s and 2020s we realized that only by renewing our social-spiritual capital could we ask what that ought is that we should do with our liberty and then be able to do it.

Archbishop Fisher delivered the Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom at the Centre for Independent Studies on 14 October.

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