ROME, JUNE 17, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Church-state boundaries came under close scrutiny in Australia recently, with a no-holds barred debate over stem cell legislation. At the end of May the ruling Labor Party in the state of New South Wales announced legislation to overturn a previous ban on the cloning of embryonic stem cells for medical research.
"I'm doing this to allow New South Wales researchers to work on new therapies that will help us better understand human diseases and may provide the treatments and therapies for many of the illnesses currently considered untreatable," announced the state's premier, Morris Iemma, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper May 30.
The door to embryo stem cell research in Australia was opened when federal Parliament gave its approval late last year. The new law comes into effect this month. The legislation proposed in New South Wales was eventually approved by the state's lower house June 7, although it must still pass the upper house.
It met, however, with strong opposition from both the Anglican and Catholic Churches. Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, the state capital, acknowledged that there is a real need to find cures for disease and genetic problems. He appealed, however, for greater reflection on the moral issues involved.
In a statement issued June 4 on behalf of the 10 bishops from the state's dioceses, Cardinal Pell also protested at the way the proposal was being rushed through Parliament in the space of only a week.
The human embryo, the statement continued, "has intrinsic human dignity and should be afforded that most basic of human rights -- the right to live, to grow, to prosper."
Cardinal Pell finished by calling upon Catholic, and indeed all Christian politicians, not to vote in favor of such "immoral legislation."
Media attention in the following days largely tended to ignore Cardinal Pell's arguments on the ethical objections to embryonic stem cell research, preferring to concentrate on his appeal to Catholic politicians.
Typical of this was a June 6 report in the Sydney Morning Herald titled: "Catholic members of Parliament to defy Pell over bill." The article went on to describe how Premier Iemma and his deputy, John Watkins, both Catholics, were prepared to "defy" the Church.
An agency report posted the same day on the newspaper's Web page reported further comments by Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees, who demanded that Sydney's archbishop apologize to Catholic members of Parliament, or risk being considered as bad as radical Muslim leaders.
The article also reported comments by Iemma that he didn't think his local parish priest would be denying him communion, in spite of his support for the bill.
Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott, also a Catholic, spoke out in support of Cardinal Pell, reported the Daily Telegraph on June 6. "Cardinal Pell is entitled to say his piece. He is the leader of
the Catholic church here in Australia," he said.
In a radio interview, Australian Prime Minister John Howard also defended the cardinal. "In the end, Church leaders, if they believe something ... are entitled to put their view," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on July 7.
An editorial June 7 in the national daily The Australian spoke out in favor of Cardinal Pell. He was only doing his job, the paper argued. "As cardinal, it is his responsibility to explain and uphold Catholic principles, to remind Australian Catholics of the rules that apply to their lives, if lived as Catholics."
Matters became more heated, however, due to parallel legislation introduced in another state, West Australia. Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, the state's capital, opposed the bill to allow research on embryos. "The end does not justify the means," he said, according to a report posted on the ninemsn.com.au Web site April 19.
Just as matters reached a head in Sydney, Fred Riebeling, speaker of West Australia's Legislative Assembly, announced June 7 that Archbishop Hickey would be investigated by the state parliamentary privileges committee, reported the West Australia newspaper.
The day before, Perth's archbishop said Catholics who "voted for the cloning of embryos destined for destruction" should not go to Communion and could be excommunicated.
A report the next day in the Australian newspaper quoted a spokesman for Archbishop Hickey as saying that there had not been any threat. Politicians, the spokesman said, had been "reminded" that the cloning of embryos for experimentation and destruction was not consistent with Church teachings.
In the end, Riebeling settled for tabling in parliament a letter written to Archbishop Hickey, warning him not to interfere in the duties of members of Parliament, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on June 14.
Summing up the debate in his June 10 weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph, Cardinal Pell criticized the undue attention paid to the question of whether the Church was right to take such an attitude to Catholic politicians.
The media focus on this matter was a "huge diversionary tactic" designed to distract attention from the more fundamental question of the destruction of human life. Anti-lifers and publicity seekers, he accused, "have been trying to shoot the messenger, while they work to bury the message."
Some commentators criticized Cardinal Pell's intervention in the stem cell debate as being a violation of the individual's conscience. Catholic politicians, argued Paul Collins in the opinion pages of the Sydney Morning Herald on June 7, "must be given the freedom to make choices on these issues according to their informed consciences."
Moreover, he continued: "The Catholic tradition is that no one, including bishops, can force or determine another's conscience."
In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does speak of the need to follow one's conscience: "His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary," says No. 1776, quoting from the Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes."
Nevertheless, the Catechism also states that an individual's conscience does not exist in a sort of moral vacuum. No. 1783 points out that a conscience must be informed: "The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings."
No. 1785 mentions the importance of faith and prayer in forming our conscience. As well, the conscience is "aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church."
Moreover, No. 1792 warns of the danger of "a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and teaching," among a number of possible sources of errors in judging our moral conduct.
Religion and politics
Another charge laid against both Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Hickey was that of unduly interfering in politics by reminding Catholic politicians of their moral obligations. This is a theme dealt with frequently by Benedict XVI. One of his most recent commentaries on the subject came in his speech for the opening of the Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean on May 13.
How can the Church contribute to the solution of urgent social and political problems, he asked. Political tasks are not the immediate competence of the Church, the Pope admitted. Nevertheless, he did maintain that society needs God's presence in its task of resolving social problems.
One way in which the Church can help society is precisely through guiding consciences, the Pontiff added. "To form consciences, to be the advocate of justice and truth, to educate in individual and political virtues: That is the fundamental vocation of the Church in this area." A vocation that sometimes leads to sharp contrasts in a world tempted to ignore moral values.