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The Guardian reports a fracas within the Anglican church over a $1m political expenditure.

Anglican and Catholic bishops seem to be going out of their way to alienate their constituencies, including in respect of voluntary assisted dying and marriage equality law reform. As a result, the writing on the wall is writ large for the continued decline of religion in Australia.

Many Australian clerics are trying their hardest to foil Parliamentary attempts to drag Australia into the 21st century on social policy. They seem to care little for the ongoing demise of their own constituencies.

Religion declining since the 1960s

Religious affiliation in Australia has been declining consistently since the 1960s, consecutive Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census figures show (Figure 1). At the 2016 census, somewhat more than half (60%) of all Australians claimed a religion. More Australians than ever before identified as ‘no religion’ — for the first time ever a larger group than any single religious denomination.

Chart: Australian religious affiliation by census yearFigure 1: Australian religious affiliation by census year
Source: ABS

Weak religious commitment

Not only has religious affiliation been dropping, but the nature of the affiliation is weak (Figure 2). Amongst the two largest religious denominations, a quarter of Catholics (26%) and nearly half of Anglicans (47%) are Notionals: that is, they identify with the denomination but never attend religious services. More than half of Catholics (52%), and four in ten Anglicans (41%), attend religious services only occasionally (Occasionals: several times a year or less often).

Chart: Australian denominations and Australian religious identity (ARI-6)Figure 2: Australian denominations and Australian religious identity (ARI-6)
Source: Australian Election Study (AES) 2016

Just 22% of Catholics and a mere 12% of Anglicans demonstrate commitment to their denomination through dedicated service attendance (Regular = monthly or more often, and Devout = weekly or more often).

The picture is particularly grim for the Anglican church, dominant in Australia from Federation until the 1960s. With both a deeply impoverished affiliation rate in 2016 (13.3%), and just 12% of the flock dedicated to service attendance, a miniscule 1.6% of Australians are committed Anglicans.

The picture is only slightly better for the Catholic church. With 22.6% affiliation in 2016, and 22% of those committed to service attendance, it's a slightly larger but still damningly small 5.0% of Australians who are committed Catholics. Further, the Catholic church’s affiliation may be significantly lower at the next (2021) census, as Australians vent their dismay and disgust at how badly it’s handled the scourge of child sexual abuse that’s occurred under its ‘pastoral umbrella.’

Hollow ‘leadership’

Across all religious denominations, just 16% of Australians are committed to their denomination — Regular or Devout religious service attenders — while 30.1% Reject religion altogether.

And yet those at the head of their ships of faith still demand that we listen to and comply with their moral dictates, assuming that they have an automatic right to steer our morality in their own chosen direction. If they think they’re ‘leading,’ most Australians aren't following.

The indications are that they're going the way of Kodak, now a small, wan shadow of its former dominant self. If the Anglican and Catholic churches were companies with voting shareholders (or even not-for-profits with voting members), the Boards and executives (archbishops and bishops) would have been, for overseeing such profound and continuing erosion of their brand franchises, replaced long ago.

Entrenched rather than learning

You’d think all this would be a warning message to archbishops and bishops to seek to understand their flocks and build bridges for mutual understanding and engagement; to demonstrate a bit of flexibility in recognising alternative and equally respectable moral codes that were not established in ancient and very different times. But no.

Their recent performances on both voluntary assisted dying and marriage equality law reform suggest otherwise.

The fact is that to rebuild their franchises, the churches need to reach out to their Occasionals and to their Notionals — those who identify with the denomination but rarely if ever attend services. But the bishops have been pleasing only (some of) their Regulars and Devouts. It's a classic and literal case of “preaching to the converted.”

Voluntary assisted dying

In the matter of voluntary assisted dying (VAD) law reform, there are presently VAD Bills before both the NSW and Victorian parliaments. Figure 3 shows Australian attitudes toward VAD by religious affiliation.

Chart: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward voluntary assisted dyingFigure 3: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward VAD
Source: AES 2016

Opposition to VAD amongst most denominations is very small, and really only makes an appearance amongst minor Christian and non-Christian denominations. Just 10% of Catholics and 7% of Anglicans oppose VAD, 5% and 3% of them strongly.

Figure 4 shows the real story. Opposition to VAD amongst Rejecters, Socialisers, Notionals and Occasionals is almost non-existent, and support is in a huge majority (85% of Socialisers, 89% of Notionals and 78% of Occasionals). Opposition to VAD amongst religion Rejecters is less than 2%. That is, opposition to VAD is almost entirely religious, although religious opposers pretend their opposition is nothing to do with faith.

Chart: Australian religious identity (ARI-6) and attitudes toward voluntary assisted dyingFigure 4: Australian religious identity (ARI-6) and attitudes toward VAD
Source: AES 2016

Only amongst Regulars and Devouts does opposition to VAD make a real appearance. Yet even amongst Devouts, with the strongest opposition, it’s in the minority (47%).

And what have the bishops been doing? They’ve campaigned strongly against VAD, spreading misinformation. Take for example the Catholic Church’s latest version of its anti-euthanasia polemic ‘brochure’ (Figure 5).

The Catholic Church’s latest polemic brochure against voluntary assisted dyingFigure 5: The Catholic Church’s latest polemic brochure against VAD
Source: Catholic diocese of Byron Bay

This amateur production reveals a superficial understanding of the issues and a penchant for hyperbole. Worse, it employs significant misinformation in order to create FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), as does an advertisement taken out by a number of bishops from various denominations, in Melbourne’s major daily newspaper (Figure 6).

Chart: The June 2017 bishops' anti-VAD print advertisementFigure 6: The June 2017 bishops' anti-VAD print advertisement
Source: Herald Sun

The bishops’ manoeuvres will only alienate their congregation’s least committed members, the Notionals and Occasionals — the very people they should be wooing back to the pews, and who are strongly supportive of VAD as a valid and respectable response to intolerable and unrelievable suffering at end of life.

Perhaps the bishops would find this suggestion unpalatable, too much like a sales pitch. If that’s the case, one can only point out that selling the claim of saving of souls is the very task of evangelism. One could ask, “is your God likely to approve heartily of the continued withering of Australian faith?”

Marriage equality

The second contemporary example is marriage equality (ME). Figure 7 shows Australian attitudes to ME by religious denomination.

Chart: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward marriage equalityFigure 7: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward ME
Source: AES 2016. Note: There was no ‘neither/nor’ option in this survey question

A clear majority of Australians in all groups except minor Christian denominations support marriage equality. That includes 74% of Catholics, 63% of Anglicans and 60% of Uniting Church members.

Figure 8 shows attitudes toward marriage equality by religious identity.

Chart: Australian religious identity and attitudes toward marriage equalityFigure 8: Australian religious identity (ARI-6) and attitudes toward ME
Source: AES 2016

Support of marriage equality is in a clear majority amongst Rejecters (88%), Socialisers (82%), Notionals (73%) and Occasionals (71%). Around half (49%) of Regulars also support marriage equality.

Only amongst Devouts is support for marriage equality in the minority, with a quarter (25%) supporting and three quarters (75%) opposing it.

And what have the bishops been doing? They’ve run a massive campaign against marriage equality law reform. Indeed, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, announced that the diocese had donated, from precious church funds, $1 million to the ‘No’ campaign.

The public was even more dismayed to discover the diocese had granted just $5,000 to dealing with entrenched domestic violence in its ranks, at the same time as allocating the $1 million to preventing the equal expression of love.1

Given that marriage equality is almost certain to be legalised in Australia either directly after this voter ‘poll’ or in the term of the next Parliament, that’s an extraordinary squandering of a vast charitable sum for no net result. Calls have been made for the diocese’s tax-exempt status to be reviewed.

Substitute movements

In fact, so refractory has been the stance of many bishops, that Australians of faith have resorted to establishing their own networks outside the churches, for example Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia, Australian Christians for Marriage Equality, and Australian Catholics for Equality.

Conclusion

The evidence is incontestable: opposition to VAD is almost completely religious, and opposition to ME is largely religious, despite protestations to the contrary.

Bishops’ conduct in relation to these reforms, which most Australians want, have been unhelpful by resisting Australia’s move into the 21st century — on the basis of ancient interpretations of scripture to which only a small minority of Australians subscribe.

The bishops' conduct has run strongly counter to the compassion and understanding they could have shown in order to engage the Notionals and Occasionals amongst their flocks; to halt the erosion of their religious capital, and to rebuild it.

These bishops most certainly don't represent the general views and beliefs of most Australians on VAD or ME. Rather, they give the appearance of administrators who are determined to preside over smaller and smaller congregations: a kind of “slow euthanasia.”

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  1. Gleeson, H 2017, Sydney Anglican church confesses to domestic abuse in its ranks, plans to reform with new policy, ABC News, viewed 10 Oct 2017, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-10/sydney-anglican-church-to-unveil-domestic-abuse-policy/9033426>.

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Another Catholic 'academic' spreads more misinformation. Photo: donaldytong

It’s very disappointing that Catholic theologian Dr Joel Hodge’s recent editorial in Fairfax media about assisted dying law reform contained misinformation: the same old tired and discredited story trotted out as though it's true. Dr Hodge also repeated an old and curiously one-sided (Catholic) examination of the hypothetical slippery slope.

Unhappily, the kind of misinformation that Dr Hodge advances muddies the waters and cruelly stands in the way of legislative action, which most Australians want.

An impeccable national survey conducted by scholars at Australian National University last year found 77% of Australians in favour of assisted dying law reform. Strong support (43%) outweighed strong opposition (4%) by more than ten to one. In the two states whose Parliaments are currently considering reform, NSW and Victoria, support stands at 75% and 79% respectively.
 

Non-religious support is 91%, and it’s high amongst Catholics (74%) and Anglicans (79%) as well. Bishops are jarringly out of step with the views of their flocks. And across the political spectrum, 87% of Greens, 80% of Labor, 77% of Coalition and 69% of minor party voters also want reform.

The electorate’s desires couldn’t be clearer. But politicians — who have little time to fact-check what they’re told — are fed the kind of misinformation Dr Hodge advances.

The false 'non-voluntary euthanasia slippery slope' argument

He quotes details from a medical journal article by Dr José Pereira, a Canadian Catholic physician. Like others who cite this article, Dr Hodge fails to mention that it was thoroughly debunked in a surgical deconstruction by expert scholars. They found Pereira’s claims variously unsupported by any evidence, unsupported by the sources he cited, or false, concluding that the article was “smoke and mirrors.”

Like other Catholics, Dr Hodge relies heavily on a thoroughly debunked journal article by Catholic Canadian doctor, José Pereira.A significant source of smoke, which Dr Hodge fans from this debunked article, is the claim regarding “900 Dutch deaths hastened without explicit request”: that is, non-voluntary euthanasia or NVE. Such figures are cited as ‘proof’ of the hypothetical slippery slope from legalised voluntary euthanasia to NVE.

Other opponents of assisted dying variously put the figure at 500 or 1,000. For the sake of argument, let’s say the 900 figure is equivalent to 1,000. Both the 500 and 1,000 figures, also repeatedly promoted by Catholic ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville and others, have been true. But here’s the thing.

What they don’t mention is that the 1,000 rate is from the 1990s when Dutch assisted dying was conducted under a general regulatory framework. In 2002 the Dutch euthanasia Act came into effect. Amongst the Act's many details was the establishment of a Commission which examines every reported case of assistance.

Since then, the Dutch NVE rate has dropped to 500, and even further. It has stayed low and is now similar to the NVE rate in the United Kingdom, the world’s gold standard for palliative care, and where assisted dying remains illegal.

There was a significant drop in the NVE rate in Belgium, too, after its euthanasia Act came into effect, also in 2002.

It is absolutely unconscionable that yet another Catholic commentator has trotted out the same old lie as though it's true. Dr Hodge is an academic and it is incumbent on him to check the facts before sounding off.By cherry-picking a single figure, opponents argue the opposite of the facts, implying or even directly claiming that NVE rates are caused by or have risen as a result of legalised assisted dying. I’ve comprehensively exposed this nonsense before, yet it comes up repeatedly.

It’s similar to other lines of Catholic argument against assisted dying, like the claim that Dutch elderly supposedly travel to Germany for healthcare because they fear being euthanised by their Dutch doctors — an outrageous falsehood. There’s also the faintly desperate claim that Dr Els Borst, the architect of the Dutch euthanasia Act, later regretted her reform — a fake claim she’s firmly corrected.

Consider too a Catholic bishop’s claim, without reservation and in formal evidence before an official Parliamentary inquiry, that Oregon’s general suicide rate was very low prior to its assisted dying Act but very high afterwards — contrary to the facts. Or a report cherry-picking just half a sentence from a journal paper to claim that a significant proportion of assisted-death patients in Oregon had symptoms of depression, when the other half of the very same sentence clearly stated that none of them had.

As Professors Griffiths, Weyers and Adams wrote in 2008, “imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation [and worse] took the place of careful analysis.” Sadly, the same still seems true today.

Major Catholic flip-flop on choosing death

Now let’s turn our attention to the core of Dr Hodge’s thesis. His plea for “the vulnerable” leads his argument and is heavily egged throughout the polemical pudding.

A comparison is moot: Australians have the right to refuse any unwanted medical treatment, even if it’s life-saving.

In my home state of Victoria, this right to refuse is enshrined in statute. The statute contains just three ‘safeguards’ for checking a refusal, and those only apply if the refusal is formally documented in writing but not if it’s only oral.

As I’ve explained in detail before, the consequence is that a person can refuse life-saving medical treatment with few if any checks and balances. In theory, just as Dr Hodge argues in regard to assisted dying, the person might feel pressured by greedy relatives, resource-poor doctors or others, to so refuse.

In this case, where is the Catholic call for protections? Where is the moral outrage on behalf of ‘vulnerable patients’? There is none. In fact, the Catholic Church’s call is quite the opposite. In a directive to all Catholic healthcare institutions in the USA, the Conference of Catholic Bishops make the Church’s position abundantly clear. They direct that there is no obligation for patients to use “disproportionate means of preserving life.”

The Catholic church's rhetoric against assisted dying is a major flip-flop when compared to its cosy attitude towards refusal of life-saving medical treatment: both might result in hypothetical pressure to choose death, yet only assisted dying has adequate safeguards.They define disproportionate means as “…those that in the patient’s judgement do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or entail an excessive burden, or impose excessive expense on the family or the community.”

So, under two identical hypothetical possibilities of inappropriate persuasion to choose death, Dr Hodge’s argument bristles against an assisted dying reform containing — as he acknowledges — no fewer than 68 safeguards, while his Church argues that patients may refuse life-saving medical treatment if the patient feels it’s “hopeless,” entails “excessive burden” or imposes “excessive expense” on others, with hardly any, or no statutory safeguards at all.

The incoherence, and repetition of misinformation, is indefensible. Civil debate on such an important matter deserves better.


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