A 20th September reprt from The Age has provided a follow up on the recent ruckus concerning Cardinal George Pell’s “threat” to MPs should they vote in favour of the Bill to allow embryonic cloning for stem cell harvesting. The statement that voting in favour of the bill would have “consequences” for Catholic MPs sparked outrage amongst secular fundamentalists from both sides of the political divide, asserting once again the barrier where “religion” may not cross – namely, the Parliament floor. Statement also led to an inquiry over whether Cardinal Pell was guilty of contempt of Parliament.
The Privileges Committee of the New South Wales Upper House, responsible for the inquiry, announced that the good Cardinal was not in contempt. According to the report:
“The committee said it had considered the context of his comments amid repeated questioning from reporters. It also said the comments appeared to have no impact on MPs’ consideration of the Human Cloning and Other Prohibited Practices Amendment Bill 2007, which it said was passed with a ‘sizeable majority’ to end the state’s ban on stem cell research in line with a federal move. ‘The committee also noted the length of time which has elapsed since the bill was passed, during which there appear to have been no complaints of any member suffering any penalty or sanction as a result of voting for the bill'”
There is a moral to this story not just for secularists but for the Church as well. On the one hand, the report implicitly confirms the discriminatory attitude of parliamentarians. Whilst parliament is a marketplace of ideas, it is also the place where coercive force from all ideological elements come to bear on parliamentarians so as to ensure their interests are represented. To say that religious voices have no part to play in this process of coercion whilst allowing other counterparts to parttake of this game, cannot be anything else but a blatant excercise in discrimination.
That said however, the report should also come as a lesson for the Church’s role as a player in civil society – it is futile. William Cavanaugh reminds us, and this episode aptly demonstrates, that the game of public square politics is one where the eventual winner is the very entity that public square politics is meant to influence: the State. The state is the receipient of the products of the public square as part of the enterprise of maintaing accountable governance, but it is at the same time the gatekeeper and referee of that very same public square. This is what allows the discriminatory practices of the New South Wales Upper House to take place. And as the committee report says, the majority that allowed the passage of the Bill demonstrates that the level of influence of the rhetoric emanating from public square is virtually nil. The commercialisation of culture and the dominance of “economic rationalism” suggests that what gets Parliaments to bend is not rhetoric, but painful discipline.
Does that mean that the Church has to engage in the use of violence to assert its view? As Christ’s Body, part of the God that demands “mercy not sacrifice”, the resort to violence actually not only contradicts the demands of the Gospel, but will also inadvertently play by the rules, and eventually become the clone, of the entity the Church is trying to resist. What is needed is a discipline that bypasses the violent logic of the State, and a possible avenue can be gleaned from the Epistles, which speak about the legitimate of the discipline of expulsion from the Body of Christ, not just as a guard against scandal, but also as a formative tool (indeed, Foucault reminds us that discipline is indispensable to enable meaningful engagement with the world). Cavanaugh’s recovery of ancient Church practice, analysed in Torture and Eucharist, has great bearing here. Expulsion is not to be seen as a form of definitive punishment from which no alleviation is possible. Rather expulsion for the early Church was seen as a balm to allow the erring congregant to realise the folly of deviating from the discipline of the Church, by actually experiencing firsthand the effects of not just estrangement fo the Church, but also the consequences that flow out of his choices.
These reflections have bearing on the current story. The Church has not yet excercised what tradition says it has the authority to do, namely, expel those whose behaviour suggests a stubborn rebellion against the life demanded by their membership within the Body of Christ. That said, it should not rule out its exercise completely if it seeks to have any hope of influencing Christians who wield the powers of thee State, but in a way that does not kowtow to the rules of the State’s games, which as we have seen are ultimately designed to silence dissent. Now that this Bill has passed and thus laid the foundations for the exploitation of the most helpless form of human life, there will be many more of such instances when resistence by the Church to the State would be called for, nay demanded.