What Kevin Rudd should tell the Pope

What Kevin Rudd should tell the Pope

10 Jul 2008

Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

Perhaps more than any previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has spoken at length of his Christian beliefs. Several months before he became leader of the Labor Party he published a long piece in the Monthly on faith in politics, acknowledging his admiration for the German theologian and activist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis towards the end of the War.

Thus a meeting between Kevin Rudd and the Pope is potentially far more than the normal exchange of pleasantries one might expect when a pontiff visits Australia. The Pope, who grew up in Nazi Germany, would clearly be well versed in the story of Bonhoeffer, and presumably delighted to meet a political leader who draws his political inspiration from the Gospels.

But Kevin Rudd is Prime Minister of a country that has no official religion, many of whose citizens are deeply uncomfortable with the claims of all organized religions. He will meet the Pope not only as a fellow Christian but as the only church leader in the world who is also a head of state, with the Vatican enjoying many of the attributes of statehood, such as the right to attend international conferences in its own right. Australia has diplomatic relations with the Vatican, a situation without parallel with any other religion.

In his article Rudd brought religion and politics together to argue that: "Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalized, the vulnerable and the oppressed." He argued strongly that this should influence policy on climate change, global poverty and asylum seekers.

All of these would provide a full agenda for a meeting between Prime Minister and Pope. The two leaders could usefully underline the enhanced importance of meeting the Millenium Development Goals in light of the current world food and energy crises.

But the Prime Minister might also raise with the Pope his concerns about the role of the Vatican in two areas of concern to both this and previous Australian governments.

The first concerns the current situation in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe was raised a Catholic, although this is a minority creed in the country, and appears to still be a believer [after the sham elections last month he took his oath of office on a Bible]. He has been strongly criticized by the Catholic hierarchy within Zimbabwe, and denounced by a number of southern African bishops, some of whom have led the movement for democracy in Zimbabwe.

When Mugabe visited Rome last month to attend the world food summit, a visit that many felt should not have been countenanced, the Pope refused to meet him. But more direct denunciation of a man who has clung to office through murder, intimidation and fraud could be expected. The Church has a mixed record of opposition to totalitarian regimes, but where its moral weight has been applied it has been a major force for democratisation. It would seem appropriate for the Prime Minister to ask whether the moral authority of the Pope is being used as effectively as it might.

More difficult is the question of HIV/AIDS and the promotion of condoms. After quarter of a century of living with the epidemic it remains true that condoms are the single most effective means of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, and that whatever moral objections may be held towards sex outside monogamous marriage no program is able to establish abstinence as a universal norm.

Australian governments have recognized this from the inception of the epidemic, and have supported international efforts to control the spread of HIV through a series of program which recognise that while many people engage in sexual practices not approved by religious leaders, the public health imperative to provide all necessary information and preventive measures is essential for the preservation of life. Some Catholics have taken up this argument, claiming that the preservation of life is the ultimate moral act, and the ban on condoms should therefore be removed where it is helping spread HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Australia has a long term international commitment to fighting the spread of HIV. Religious opposition to condoms is widely regarded as a major obstacle to success, and runs against the programs Australian governments have supported for twenty years. That some senior Catholic figures have consistently attacked condoms as ineffective, and sought to block their availability, runs in the face of scientific evidence and has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of HIV in many parts of the world.

Equally Catholic opposition to acceptance of homosexuality is a major factor leading to both persecution of homosexuals and failure to slow transmission of HIV in many parts of the world. Whatever the Church's moral teachings on sexuality it cannot justify seeking to impose these on non-believers in ways that, again, undermine scientifically proven programs of prevention against a life threatening disease. The Prime Minister can be expected to explain how his own concerns for social justice and human dignity underlie what have been bipartisan policies, supported by the great majority of AIDS experts across the world.

Many of us who are not religious were deeply comforted by Rudd's article, which suggested a generous and diverse approach to religion unlike that associated with right wing fundamentalists. Much as was true of his visit to China, his meeting with the Pope will be a test of how far he is willing to transform those beliefs into requests for action.

Dennis Altman is Professor of Politics at LaTrobe University

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