Pell on Religious Freedom and Human Rights

Sydney’s old faithful, Cardinal George Pell, has been weighing in on the current debate in Australia’s proposed charter of human rights. The mainstream Churches of Australia are behind him. Love of God or belief in the saving grace of Jesus could never unite them the same way that opposition to a human rights charter has.

I’d like to respond to some of Cardinal Pell’s claims in a recent opinion piece in the Australian, Oct 23 2009 (,,26246834-32542,00.html).

You may be surprised to learn that Australia is the only Western country to have no national human rights legislation. Just as background, the proposal is similar to that in force in England, and several Australian states. The human rights charter itself does not make anything illegal. It is a checklist to ensure that all legislation in Australia conforms to the minimal ethical standards accepted by Australians and internationally. The human rights are to be adopted by default from various international conventions that Australia is signatory to, which may be adapted for the Australian context, for example by a special emphasis on indigenous people. The commision to develop the charter is headed by Jesuit priest and lawyer Frank Brennan, who was made an Australian Living National Treasure for his work on indigenous rights. It is supported by a clear majority of Australians ( For more information, check out

Cardinal Pell says that the human rights charter is a bad idea because it ‘is a threat to some freedoms’. But this is precisely the point: to curtail the freedom of people to act in ways that are harmful.

The purpose of a human rights charter is primarily to protect the vulnerable. Cardinal Pell says that ‘things in Australia are not too bad’. For rich white men like Cardinal Pell this is surely the case. But try asking some indigenous Australians, who have a life expectancy 20 years less than the average, or children asylum seekers who, under past policies, were detained indefinitely in detention centers.

At my Catholic school, one of the brothers used to have us recite: ‘Better, better, best, never let it rest, until good is better and better is best.’ Now we get ‘not too bad’ – that’s not good enough!

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Cardinal Pell’s article is that he ignores the broader human rights implications and focuses almost entirely on what he calls ‘religious freedom’. This is a serious misuse of the term.

Religious freedom means you are free to practice or believe what you want. Like all freedoms, it may only be exercised as long as it does not harm others. This right, which currently is not guaranteed at a national level in Australia, will be part of the new charter.

What Pell wants is freedom for religions to do what they want, even when this causes harm or when it contravenes the ethical standards accepted by the rest of Australian society. This is the case under current, state based, anti-discrimination legislation, which allows religious bodies to discriminate as much as they like in a whole range of areas.

I have consulted in this with the Australian Sangha Association and the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, as well as a wide range of ordinary Buddhists, and I am yet to find a single person who endorses this situation. Australian Buddhists want to follow the same ethics as everyone else, and we will aim even higher, to exceed and excel in our ethical practices. This is part of how we perceive our role in society, to act as ethical exemplars. Religions should not be dragged kicking and screaming to accept the same standards that everyone else does.

Very many Christians, of course, do set an extraordinarily high ethical standard, which in the current case is shown by the fact that a Jesuit priest was appointed to head the human rights commission. In many areas, including work with the poor and indigenous peoples, Australian Christians do astonishing work, and we Buddhists have a long way before we can catch up.

This, however, does not give them any right to claim special exemptions. If the religions had used their privileged positions only to promote the good, they might have some credibility. But with the ongoing child abuse crisis the Catholics have lost any reasonable grounds to ask for a special exemption from the rules. We have all seen what happens when a religious body is above the law, becomes unaccountable, and places itself beyond criticism.

Buddhism in some traditional countries suffers from the same arrogance, and wants to keep up with discriminatory practices that contravene their own country’s human rights legislation. I for one would love to have the strongest possible support from the secular authorities to ensure that sexual discrimination in the Sangha is ended.

Discrimination causes harm: this is a simple, empirical fact, accepted by all good people. Westerners know this, largely because we have learned from over a thousand years of sexual discrimination and religious persecution under the Catholic Church.

In Thailand, the Christian lobbyists have tried to remove any Buddhist practices from the schools in a country that is 97% Buddhist, telling the Thais that this is the modern, secular standard.

In Australia, it’s a different story. The Roman Church wants the freedom to hire and fire on the basis of belief, to exclude women, to deny equality to same sex couples. This is not religious freedom, it is discrimination, pure and simple.


2 thoughts on “Pell on Religious Freedom and Human Rights

  1. It was highly appropriate yourself (Sujato) and Brahmavaso were expelled from the Ajahn Chah community. This was a long time coming.

    You have started your own sect in a very arrogant way in Australia and placed too much emphasis upon superstitious rebirth teachings, contrary to the Thai forest tradition.

    Your talk at the death & dying conference in Malaysia, where you misrepresented supramundane dhammas such as the 4NTs lacked integrity and smelt of donations seeking from wealthy Asian benefactors.

    It is an interesting observation how so few indviduals form the ordained Sangha yet how powerfully only a few can dictate and establish the interpretation of the Buddha-Dhamma. In other words, in light of the power you have, the impression is you abuse it via your intellectualism and false interpretations of the teachings.

    Whilst I do not have any specific objections to bhikhuni ordaination, to ordain for superstitious purposes such as a better rebirth is inappropriate.

    That peddlers of superstition such as yourself & Brahm have initiated these ordainations is what makes them disconcerting.

    • Thanks, Nick, for your honesty, although I must say I cannot for the life of me understand what you’re talking about, or why this is under a discussion of a Catholic cardinal. Anyway, this is an open forum so please have your say.

      For anyone who’s interested in the paper that Nick refers to, which I gave in Malaysia at the Closer 2 Reality seminar in KL 2008, they may read it here and make up their own mind:

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