Ethics, Christian and Secular

  (30 November 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

We have two very recent examples of religious bodies and individuals revealing how ethically inferior they are compared to the standards of contemporary secular society.   


First, there’s the Civil Partnerships Bill passed last night by the Queensland Parliament. To their credit, a few Church leaders – notably Anglicans and Catholics – supported the principle of equity behind the legislation, as did the Brisbane Anglican Church’s Social Responsibilities Committee. Most of the opposition to the Bill, however, was religiously inspired, as my local member Kerry Shine (a Catholic) ruefully noted:


I believe the argument in favour of equality of rights is superior to whatever arguments have been used or put up against it. Most of the latter, if not all, relate to a religious prohibition. For my part, I believe that where the rights of others are unaffected, then the state should not legislate as to who can or should not cohabit or enter into a relationship. That is not to say that religious denominations and their followers cannot declare what is right or wrong for their followers. That is a matter for individual choice. It should not in the 21st century, with the benefits of the lessons of 500 years of religious differences including 100 years war (sic), be the subject of civil or state concern.


Indeed, the Member for Nicklin, independent MP Peter Wellington spoke of intimidation by conservative religious groups attempting to influence his vote on the issue. The Brisbane Catholic  Diocese was against the proposal, and (of course) Australia’s most eminent Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, is on the record as supporting intervention to overturn civil unions legislation elsewhere in Australia. Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen is also, predictably, against the idea of equity on this issue. Thank goodness for the increasingly-outnumbered progressive Catholics and Anglicans out there.


A second example also involves our notorious Cardinal Pell. A report by Barney Zwartz in The Age tells the story:


A LEADING Catholic priest has criticised Cardinal George Pell for reserving a "grand apartment" for himself at the Australian church's new guest house in Rome, saying "the ethics of our secular state are higher than those of our church".


Father Eric Hodgens, of Melbourne, an elder statesman among the clergy, also savaged Australia's Catholic bishops for what he regards as an abject performance during their five-yearly visit to Rome last month, particularly in failing to stand up for Bill Morris, sacked earlier this year as bishop of Toowoomba.


"They eat their own when fingered by Rome," Father Hodgens wrote of the bishops in The Swag, the national journal of Catholic priests. "How can you trust them?


''They are reckless with our patrimony. They seem incapable of protecting their own rights, let alone ours, in a system which is corrupt by today's secular standards.”


This all lends support to the view expressed by Don Cupitt in his 2008 book, The Meaning of the West. Western secular humanitarianism is directly derived, says Cupitt, from Christian ethics. But what we see in society nowadays is definitely not the old Church-Christianity at work:


The Church clings to its old inefficiencies, discriminations and injustices, and repeatedly demands for itself opt-outs from legislation that would require it to get its treatment of its own employees, women, gays and other groups up to decent contemporary secular standards. (Meaning of the West, 34)


Organised Christian religion, always intended as a stop-gap measure, cannot let go of influence and power and deliver the final redemption from itself that it promised:


[I]n the traditional language of theology, Christ has returned and the Church is obsolete (though, as Dostoyevsky foresaw, the Grand Inquisitor is far from pleased; he loves the Church and spiritual power much more than he ever loved Christ). (Meaning of the West, 10)


No, says Cupitt, we have now what a dying Christian tradition has bequeathed: the secular West, vibrant, post-metaphysical, non-theistic and with a radical, ethical vision of the Kingdom of God.





I do not say that many in the churches need to be criticised and harshly at that but I don't think that they are nearly as bad as what is hidden behind serious issues in society that are non-religious, secular if you like, and more specifically aided and abetted as it appears to me by medical science. Go to my blog at and start to appreciate the problems of diseases, such as cancer, heart disease etc., are to be found in the maltreatment of one individual by a toxic mob. Our societies, whether to be described as secular or religious are sick.

Posted by Ani Eade

One could argue that, initially, God and the gods symbolize, in the form of metaphorical personifications, the morality and ethics of their particular societies. The religions, the means of worshipping these gods, ossify in time and change exceedingly slowly. On the other hand, a society's morals and ethics change at a faster rate, sometimes rapidly. This causes a disjunction. Greg has aptly highlighted this problem in today's world.

Posted by David Miller

I have a different 'take' on Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor in "The Brothers Karamazov". I am not disputing Don Cupitt's interpretation that the Grand Inquisitor loved the Church and power more than he loved Christ. But, in my recollection, the Grand Inquisitor was also claiming that he loved humans for what they were, rather than, as Jesus did, for what they could become.

Posted by David Miller

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