Let’s get this out of the way up front. Today’s blog may be about the events surrounding the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, but it is not a debate about atheism vs religion.
And while we’re getting things out of the way, full disclosure time. I spent quite some time arguing with myself over whether to do this, but in the end I was persuaded by some of the idiocy taking place on Twitter right now that I’ll save time this way.
I am not a Catholic, lapsed or believing. I am a person of faith, and that faith is my own business. I am also a strong supporter of keeping all religion out of schools and public institutions.
Right. Now that nonsense is out of the way, let’s get to the meat of it.
You’d probably have to be living under a rock not to know that today an Australian nun named Mary MacKillop becomes a Catholic saint. Over the last week, it was difficult to avoid the media coverage. Sky News runs stories about it every bulletin, and has set up a ‘headquarters’ in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. ABCNews24 likewise. Both have given over a significant portion of broadcast time to the ceremony itself. The big media winner is the Australian Public Affairs Channel, though – their non-stop coverage of all things MacKillop started on Saturday morning. (Curiously, the Australian Christian Channel elected not to cover the canonisation ceremony.) Social media isn’t far behind with discussions, debates, arguments and outright slanging matches.
Almost all commentators (whether paid journalists or people just giving their opinion) seem happy to grant that Mary MacKillop’s achievements in life were remarkable. Her work in education, her refusal to stand by silently as children were being abused, and her determination garner little more than praise. Opinions are, of course, sharply divided over the issues of miracles and sainthood. What’s not being talked about is the level of government support.
So let’s talk about that.
The government earmarked $1.5 million for the celebrations here in Australia. Add to that the travel, accommodation, security and associated expenses for Kevin Rudd, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce and Ursula Stephens, and let’s not forget the ABC while we’re at it. That’s a sizeable amount of public money set aside for a specific religious celebration.
It’s also worth remembering that the announcement of the funding was made during the campaign, during a time when Julia Gillard was coming under fire for declaring herself an atheist. To many, that looked like pandering. Now Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop have made an incredible show of bipartisanship, co-authoring an article about Mary MacKillop.
Is this kind of expenditure warranted for a purely religious celebration, and a partisan one at that? For that matter, should the government publicly fund religious celebration at all?
There are approximately five million people in Australia who identified themselves as ‘Catholic’ on the last census. That’s a significant number, but one could hardly say Australia is a Catholic nation. (In fact, until 1820, Catholicism was suppressed in the New South Wales colony.) The Constitution specifically prohibits anything of the kind:
116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
That being said, there is a curious disconnect with regard to Australian politics. The Preamble to our Constitution makes reference to ‘Almighty God’. Parliament is opened with a clearly Christian prayer, including the Anglican version of the Lord’s Prayer. Now these things may well be a holdover from our days as an British colony – a country whose head of state is also head of the Anglican Church – but they are still there.
So is Australia a ‘Christian nation’, as is often claimed (notably by the Australian Christian Lobby)? No. Certainly, the census suggests that the majority of Australians identify themselves as affiliated with one of the Christian faiths (but the Australian Bureau of Statistics acknowledges this does not necessarily reflect active participants in religion). Even if we assume a level of commonality between those faiths that may not exist, for purposes of generalisation, it still does not make us in any way an officially religious nation – nor do numbers necessarily legitimise spending for a particular religion.
I happen to think it is unreasonable for the government to fund any form of religious observance – and make no mistake, the canonisation ceremony is exactly that, conducted within a Mass celebrated by the Pope.
Religious institutions enjoy tax-free status in Australia. A religion can take advantage of this in a number of ways – not least of which could be the provision of homes and cars for its clergy (see recent investigations of Hillsong, for example). Part of the rationale behind is the recognition that religions provide certain services for their members, said services being considered important enough to exempt these institutions from the same revenue-gathering as other organisations, so that the money they receive from their members or activities can be used by the religion. This is an enormous concession. To then follow it up with public money for services which are aimed primarily at furthering that particular religion goes well beyond the point at which religions should be involuntarily supported by all Australians.
Even if you think that there is a place for government to support religion, the issue arises of favouritism. When was the last time a government spent money on a Muslim celebration? A Jewish one? Hindu? Or any other religion you care to name? It doesn’t. So, if public money is to be spent on a Catholic celebration, why not those of other religions? Is it unreasonable to think that funding (for example) Hanukkah celebrations is at least as worthy as this canonisation?
Raising these issues is a fraught business. Too often, those who are critical of the money being spent on the canonisation are met with accusations of ‘religious intolerance’, persecution of hapless Christians (note: not Catholics, Christians), and – most extraordinarily – the claim that this kind of criticism would never be levelled at Muslims.
The beat-up is sadly typical – the claim is that Christians are unfairly attacked for their religious beliefs, that they are held to a different standard from all other religions, and even prevented from speaking – and it’s all the fault of the ‘sneering secularists’ (to quote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson on Insiders this morning). These lefty elitists call any criticism of Islam ‘Islamophobia’, but get stuck into Christians every chance they can, apparently.
Muslims come in for far more than their ‘fair share’ of criticism. It’s not exaggerating to say the rhetoric is hysterical. Every religion, for that matter, comes under fire somewhere. My own is frequently subject to ridicule. And you don’t have to identify as religious to attract criticism and attack – remember the storm that erupted over Gillard’s avowed atheism?
No religion should be subjected to hate speech and distortion – and sadly, there’s been all too much of that taking place on the social media sites lately. Equally, though, no religion should be exempt from criticism.
And when public money is set aside for a particular religious observance, the question should be asked: is this is a good use of that money? Was there better use, with more application for the wider Australian community, for what was spent getting four politicians to Rome and aiding an event put on by one of the wealthiest entities in the world?
The Atheist Foundation of Australia suggested that money could be put towards cancer research, something that has the potential to benefit all Australians regardless of their particular religious position. That statement attracted considerable anger from people identifying themselves as ‘people of faith’. I have to wonder, though – would there been half as much outrage if the suggestion had come from a different source – say, the Peter McCallum Cancer Research Centre?
The money is spent now, but the question remains. Is this sort of expenditure of public money appropriate, in a country where almost half of the population identifies as having no Christian belief, and nearly 20% no religious belief at all?
Or – and this is the cynical part – is all this government support simply about attracting tourist dollars in the form of pilgrims coming to visit Mary MacKillop’s tomb in Sydney, or her home town of Penola, South Australia?
I leave the question open.