A tiny parish in Canberra became a platform for leading Catholic thinkers to grapple with questions of faith, morality and politics, says Ben May When is it moral to go to war? What is the role of individual conscience in determining right from wrong? How best can we balance a life of faith within our families with a career in the world? What is the nature of Catholic influence on domestic and global politics? These are just some of the fascinating questions raised in this collection.
Thomas More is well-known as the martyred English chancellor who has become the patron saint of politicians and statesmen. The small Canberra parish that bears his name is perhaps not so well-known. Nestled in the foothills of Mount Ainslie in the quiet suburb of Campbell, the community of this little parish, together with St Thomas More's Primary School. have created a truly remarkable platform from which some of the most pressing and complex issues of the day can be explored.
I first became aware of the St Thomas Mare's Forums when I was a student living in Campbell.A selection of Australia's most prominent people were speaking on some of our nation's most topical issues, and would be taking questions from the floor, just a short walk from my shared house. Supper was provided. How could I resist?
I saw Tony Abbott get grilled from the floor about mandatory detention of refugees. I heard Kevin Rudd effortlessly deflect difficult questions on the death penalty (I later told my housemates with absolute certainty that he was very impressive, but hell never be Prime Minister"). I ate some very delicious cakes. I was hooked.
This collection brings together the prepared addresses from the Forums held from their beginning in 2005 up until late last year. A quick glance at the contributors indicates the quality of the papers.
Politicians, prominent prelates, professors and other public figures abound. The Chief Justice of the High Court, Murray Gleeson AC, has written the foreword (in which his Honour is quick to remind us that St Thomas More is also the patron saint of lawyers).
The collection is all the more impressive when it is recalled that it is not the product of a large and well-resourced institution, but rather of ordinary parishioners.
The papers play out the great themes of the final term of what Tony Abbott wryly calls "the fascist Howard dictatorship". Industrial relations. Australia's involvement in Iraq, terrorism and the culture wars are all addressed. Contributors from the world of politics include Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Peter Garrett; lobbyists Paul Monagle and Bill Muehlenbeig from the Australian Family Association and Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby: and columnist Angela Shanahan.
Other difficult topics, perhaps of less immediacy but of longer standing, are also considered. Academics Patrick Morgan and John Warhurst discuss the role that Catholics have played, and continue to play. in Australian politics. One Catholic with extensive experience of attempting to influence the legislative process. Fr Frank Brennan, discusses the development of laws regulating human cloning and research conducted on human embryos. Cardinal George Pell and Fr Thomas Cassidy each present thought-provoking papers addressing the primacy of individual conscience, an ancient question that nevertheless has a great deal of relevance today. The great theological and philosophical debates of westem history are touched on in a brief hypothetical account in which God is put on trial.
The collection contains two unique insights into charitable works. The first is a grass-roots viewpoint provided by Amy Branson, who organised a fund-raising walk from Brisbane to Canberra to raise money for and awareness of acquired brain injuries.
The second is the "big picture" view from the immediate past Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, Duncan MacLaren. Both provide valuable perspectives on the ways in which individuals can make a positive difference in the world.
A number of more esoteric subjects are also addressed in the collection. There is a healthy splash of contributions from the wine industry, and Archbishop Mark Coleridge draws on his time in the Holy See's Secretariat of State to discuss the role that the Church plays in international diplomacy.
The variety of perspectives offered on such a diverse range of topics means that every reader should be able to find papers with which they can wholeheartedly agree, and others to make their hackles rise, What draws each of the papers together ia their focus on thc qucs tion of how a person's faith can affect their life, whether in business, in public life or in their families.
The papers offer a glimpse of how recognisable figures go about addressing the questions that confront each of us, and as such many of them constitute quite an intimate window into their subject's interior life.
This was the quality that I found most surprising and most appealing in my favourite paper, one prepared by federal police commissioner Mick Keelty. Commissioner Keelty offers a very personal insight into the way in which his role has challenged the practice of his faith.
One story in particular stood out for me, thatofhis visit to Kit outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where impoverished Vietnamese children are held in sexual slavery. The misery he encountered there prompted the commissioner to ask: "Is it because of the practice of their faith in that Catholic part of Vietnam that they have 10 children when they can't afford to have 10 children? Does that force them to sacrifice a child?" These are uncomfortable questions, to which there are no easy answers.
Covering a multitude of subjects from a variety of angles, this collection is an appropriate tribute to the "man for all seasons". It is a stimulating record of the St Thomas Morc's Forums for those of us who cannot be there in person to enjoy the cut and thrust of the questions from the floor or, indeed, the cakes.