SYDNEY, Australia — It is a major donnybrook Down Under.

Two of Australia’s leading bishops, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney and Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, may soon find themselves before parliamentary committees having to answer for their public comments on stem-cell research.

In the name of keeping church and state “separate,” some Australian politicians are, oddly enough, calling for parliamentary investigations of the archbishops’ interventions.

In December, the Australian national parliament voted to permit the cloning of human embryos for research purposes, which requires their destruction in order to harvest embryonic stem cells. The various Australian states are now passing their own legislation to enable such cloning in their own jurisdictions.

This month both Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Hickey declared that to permit the creation of human embryos in order to destroy them for research purposes was gravely evil, and that any Catholic member of the state legislatures who voted for such bills should not present themselves for Holy Communion. Pressed further about excommunications in those cases, both prelates acknowledged that while it was a possibility in canon law, it was not likely.

Nothing all that remarkable, one might think, given the comments of Pope Benedict XVI in May, clarifying that politicians who vote against Church teachings on the sanctity of life should not receive Communion, and the statements that followed on the same issue from prominent bishops such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh, Scotland, Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Wales, and Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City.

‘Muscular Catholicism’

Yet in Australia, some politicians took umbrage with the very fact of the Catholic bishops’ speaking at all, claiming that their interventions constituted an illegal threat to Catholic Members of Parliament (MPs).

In the state of Western Australia, of which Perth is the capital, the Speaker of the legislative assembly, Fred Riebeling, reported Archbishop Hickey to the procedure and privileges committee.

Riebeling, the chairman of the same committee, said on June 6 that the archbishop’s comments constituted a “threat” to Catholic MPs. In Western Australia it is a crime to threaten MPs in seeking to influence their vote. It remains to be seen whether the committee will actually summon Archbishop Hickey to answer for his allegedly criminal behavior, or whether Riebeling was just making threats himself.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, on June 15 the state legislature privileges committee accepted a request from Green Party MP Lee Rhiannon to investigate the comments of Cardinal Pell.

Protesting Cardinal Pell’s “outburst of muscular Catholicism,” Rhiannon pronounced herself disappointed that the cardinal had shown no “remorse” for his comments.

“[He] has refused to cease his special brand of meddling, despite a widespread public outcry that his statements were inappropriate,” she said. “Hopefully this referral will act as a warning to Cardinal Pell that he should refrain from launching a fresh assault on upper house MPs who are yet to cast a vote on this important bill.”

The cloning bill has passed the New South Wales lower house, but has yet to pass the upper house, which will consider the bill in late June.

No Retreat

In response, both Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Hickey have restated their positions, clarifying that it cannot be considered a “threat” for a Catholic bishop to advise Catholic politicians about the spiritual consequences of their public behavior.

Australia is known for the rough-and-tumble nature of its politics, but the moves against Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Hickey illustrate a disturbing trend in respectable opinion, namely that it is legitimate not to respond to vigorous challenges in kind, but instead seek to exclude religious voices altogether from the public debate.

In the same week as the stem-cell controversy, various activist groups announced a coordinated plan to defeat government MPs in the upcoming national election. That was greeted as just politics-as-usual. In contrast, the singling out of the Church as an illegitimate intruder into public affairs is a troubling indication of a totalitarian disposition in Australian politics — a belief that public affairs are to be the exclusive domain of approved political actors.

It is unlikely that the parliamentary privileges committees in either state will actually summon either bishop. In the case of Sydney, Cardinal Pell would likely relish such a teaching moment, afforded to him by his detractors within the legislature itself. For that reason alone, wiser heads will likely prevail.

Yet the parliamentary protests lay down an important marker. It is clear that bishops who choose to address public issues will likely face more than just disagreement; a small measure of harassment will now be in order.

There is no chance that Cardinal Pell will back down on this issue; but the real purpose of the committee referrals is to discourage future interventions.

If this keeps up, Pope Benedict will have a lot to discuss with reporters on his long flight to Australia next year for World Youth Day.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

served as the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.

He filed this report from Sydney, Australia.