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Malcolm Turnbull: the very imperfect Catholic

By Max Wallace - posted Monday, 24 November 2008

On March 6-7, 2004, Malcolm Turnbull was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald as saying that although he had recently converted to Catholicism he was a "very imperfect Catholic - I don't want to go any further than that". He had just won preselection for the seat of Wentworth on February 28.

The sociological explanation of the conversion experience is that it is a "crossing the Rubicon" experience. One realises one's innermost beliefs are wrong and they should be replaced by another, correct set of beliefs. The essential, core beliefs of Catholicism a convert would, in principle, have to agree to are:

  • a belief in the one Catholic God, composed of the Trinity of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit;
  • Adam and Eve were created by God but that Satan in the Garden of Eden led them into original sin;
  • Jesus Christ arrived 2000 years ago to save us from sin and eternal damnation and he was born of the Virgin Mary;
  • the rituals of the church are essential to salvation: Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist (the bread and wine of Communion really is the body and blood of Christ);
  • Holy Matrimony;
  • Holy Orders; and
  • forgiveness for sin (Confession) and the anointment of the sick in preparation for their eternal life with Jesus.

So it seems that sometime during 2002, prior to his October 2003 decision to stand for the February 2004 preselection for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull: BA, LLB, BCL (Oxford), successful barrister with his own substantial practice, successful multi-millionaire businessman and merchant banker, former leader of the Australian Republican Movement, former treasurer of the Liberal Party, at age 47 - decided he needed to believe what Catholics believe - as cited above.

Turnbull's conceded imperfection has been noticed by another, recent, self-confessed Catholic convert: a Melbourne University law school student, Marcel White. White wrote in the March 2007 issue of the Catholic journal AD2000 that Turnbull should be taken to task for his statements and votes in the Parliament on cloning and the RU-486 abortion pill.

Unwittingly echoing the late B.A. Santamaria in his Catholic Action youth, decades before, Marcel White characterised the reasoned positions taken by Turnbull and some other Catholic politicians as a "public scandal". It was a betrayal of the church's pro-life position. They should be reproached by their bishops.

White pointed out that Turnbull had said in December 2006:

... our society has already reached a conclusion to the effect that an embryo at this very early stage is more in the nature of a potential than an actual human being and that the rights of this microscopic bundle of cells are not equal to those of a foetus, let alone a newborn baby.

It is clear the Catholic Church counts abortion as sin. But as the main speaker at the recent Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) conference in Canberra, Turnbull surprised his pro-life audience by stating quite clearly that he believed women had the right to end an unwanted pregnancy.


Given his position on a woman's right to choose, shouldn't he, according to Catholic orthodoxy, be refused Communion? If he has not been refused, why hasn't he been refused? Strictly speaking, Marcel White has a point.

But what White may not understand is that the church's position on abortion operates on two levels. Implacable opposition in public - indifference in private. How could it be otherwise? The Australian National University's (ANU) Australian Survey of Social Attitudes in 2003 found that 54.2 per cent of Australians believed that women should be able to obtain an abortion readily; 34.5 per cent believed that it should only be allowed in special circumstances. Only 4 per cent opposed abortion, and 7.3 per cent did not know. The church cannot grandstand too hard on abortion as there are too many Catholic politicians it might alienate; it has other perceived interests it would never want to jeopardise.

So if Turnbull concedes he's a "very imperfect Catholic" in March 2004, just after his preselection for Wentworth, and votes twice against the central pro-life Catholic policy in Parliament in 2006, and openly supports abortion in 2008, why did he convert to Catholicism?

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About the Author

Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

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