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Australian territory attacks faith

Government takeover of a Catholic hospital is a harbinger of secularization

Calvary Hospital in Canberra, Australia Wikimedia Commons

Australian territory attacks faith
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Of all days, they chose a Sunday. It was July 2, the day before the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government formally took control of Calvary Hospital in Canberra. A crane removed a large blue crucifix from the front of the hospital, the most symbolic moment of the government takeover.

As previously reported here at WORLD, the territory’s government passed a bill to forcibly acquire Calvary Hospital back in May. This sparked outrage among Christians. Why should a government get to take over a privately owned Christian facility? Accusations of this being a hostile takeover were widespread.

The timing of the decision by the government was certainly interesting. The territory’s Legislative Assembly had tabled a report only in April that named and shamed Calvary as a nonprovider of abortion on demand. It also recommended that the government “advocate Calvary Hospital to provide full reproductive health services in accordance with human rights.”

At the same time, the government began providing universal access to free abortions. There was a revolutionary spirit of reproductive rights in the Canberra air. So, when the ACT government turned around in May and decided it would unilaterally take over the Catholic facility, responses were understandably strong.

Governments in Australia have a right to forcibly acquire institutions like hospitals when they are not up to scratch. We should be thankful for this right, in principle, because it means that the government can do its job of ensuring people have access to good healthcare, education, public safety, and so on.

This is the line that the ACT Health Minister, Rachel Stephen-Smith, consistently played during the process, which included a failed legal challenge by the church. The minister stated that the takeover was about control rather than ideology or religion, saying that the government takeover would allow them to streamline services and invest in new health infrastructure. Given the series of reports and changes to abortion provision leading up to the takeover, this reasoning feels like cover for something more sinister.

Christian schools are being increasingly pressed to conform to radical sexual and gender ideology.

The ability of governments to intervene like this is increasingly problematic for Christians. A shared public morality built upon Christian foundations allowed ostensibly secular governments like those in Australia to work hand-in-glove with Christian providers. The Calvary Hospital example shows this is changing. We are entering a different era.

A further example in Australia is the tension between Christian schools and government requirements regarding sexuality and nondiscrimination. Christian schools are being increasingly pressed to conform to radical sexual and gender ideology. They are also under fire for “discrimination,” against both nonbelievers in their hiring policies and students who might object to certain teachings.

It is unlikely that a government would forcibly take over a Christian school in the same way it did Calvary Hospital. But Christian schools in Australia could soon be regulated out of existence if the government makes it impossible to exclusively hire Christians and teach Christian content. In other words, Christian schools could become Christian in name only.

Where does this leave Christians in relation to their public witness and public service? In Australia, the growing gap between conservative Christian morality and broader public morality is making it harder and harder for believers to contribute in a way that is consistent with their beliefs.

Christians aren’t completely on the outside, either. The previous prime minister of Australia was a Pentecostal Christian. New hospitals and schools are being built, funded, and governed by churches and other Christian groups. There are still openings for Christian contributions to public life and public service.

But it’s hard to shake the sense that things are headed inexorably in the wrong direction for believers in Australia. The removal of the cross at Calvary Hospital, along with other religious iconography, represents a wider trend in Australian and wider Western society. It is symbolic of secularization, where previously religious institutions become nonreligious.

Until this incident with Calvary Hospital, Christians in Australia mainly had to worry about the rapid secularization of public discourse and public life. The combination of secularizations, of both public discourse and institutions, will make contributing as individuals and through institutions challenging and increasingly fraught.

Simon Kennedy

Simon Kennedy is a research fellow at the University of Queensland and a non-resident fellow at the Danube Institute. He is also associate editor of Quadrant Magazine.

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