Christopher Akehurst’s lament of the Catholic Church’s apparent absence from the recent New South Wales abortion debate, Eavesdropping on Sin, was a conspicuously inaccurate characterisation in an analysis of the rise of state-sanctioned anti-Catholicism in Australia that otherwise rang true.
Not only did the Catholic Church in Sydney and NSW more broadly declare the abhorrence of the abortion bill from the rooftops; it led so many others in the fight as well.
Western and Eastern rite Catholics joined with Orthodox churches, various Protestant denominations and groups like the Australian Christian Lobby and Right to Life NSW to hold two of the largest pro-life rallies the country has ever seen, in the space of a month. The first of these rallies, which filled Sydney’s Martin Place, was unprecedented because it saw a Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Anglican Archbishop share a platform and address the crowds. No other issue, not even the same-sex marriage debate, saw Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican leaders on the same stage.
Added to the rallies were simultaneous all-night vigils held on Macquarie Street outside the Parliament House and inside St Mary’s Cathedral, attended by hundreds more.
The faithful in Catholic parishes throughout NSW were encouraged to phone their local MPs, and provided with contact details and talking points to help them in making the call. Thousands of them did so, many of whom commenting that it was the first time they had ever made a call to their local MP. So numerous were the calls that I know of one MP who received a text message from a staffer which read: “The bloody Catholics will not stop calling.” The network of parishes also ensured the largest petition ever seen by NSW Parliament was tabled against the Bill.
Then there was the first-ever joint op-ed from the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops of Sydney that appeared in the Daily Telegraph, television and radio interviews from Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP throughout the debate, as well as appearances of key Eastern and Western Catholic leaders at the rushed parliamentary inquiry into the Bill.
So significant was the outcry from the faith communities that a bill that was designed to pass through both houses of Parliament within days of it being tabled occupied two months of parliamentary time and was amended 16 times. While the amendments were largely cosmetic, the debate that surrounded them resulted in topics like discriminatory abortions on the basis of sex and disability, the fate of babies born alive from abortion and the prevalence of abortion coercion being openly discussed in Parliament and in the media. The backlash also led to Premier Gladys Berejiklian telling her party room that there would be no more conscience votes in this term of Parliament, sparing NSW from a euthanasia debate until 2023.
Despite knowing that the proponents of the bill had the requisite number of votes on day one and that the process had been stitched up from the beginning, Catholics still stood strong in defence of unborn human life. They still voiced their objection so loudly that it could literally be heard within the parliamentary chamber.
When the time comes to tell the story of the moment when, as Archbishop Fisher described it, the worst law in the history of this state was passed, the opposition of Catholic bishops, priests and laity will be noted. I’m proud and grateful for that.
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