On Thursday 18 November, Greg Craven’s latest book, Shadow of the Cross, was launched in an online event organised jointly by the Archdiocese of Melbourne and Australian Catholic University (ACU). The event consisted of a discussion between Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and two of the book’s contributors, former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, as well as moderator Jacinta Collins, Executive Director of the National Catholic Education Commission.

In Shadow of the Cross, Professor Craven outlines a thesis that Catholic Social Teaching remains an important resource for many of the political problems Australia faces today. The three approaches to policy-making thus far – liberalism, conservatism, and social democracy – have failed to offer the comprehensive and integrated account of human life and flourishing necessary. Craven argues persuasively that Catholic Social Teaching, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, offers that integrated vision and a comprehensive framework within which to formulate policies on a range of issues, from migration to worker’s rights to reconciliation.

In welcoming the two former prime ministers, Archbishop Comensoli quipped that the session was more than just an attempt to get the two to publicly spar again. ‘Our prime minister emeriti are both men of faith. And both men who have given great service to our country, and in their various political realities brought something of the life of the Gospel and continue to do in other ways of service to our nation.’

Throughout the evening the two former leaders discussed concrete examples of worker wages, education, and climate change, both offering their differences of opinion on how specific policies might or might not be able to reflect Christian values.

Tony Abbott spoke forcefully about the toxic political climate that has developed in recent years:

I don’t like the tendency which has crept into so much of our public life to be too judgemental about people with whom you disagree. People aren’t necessarily bad people just because they don’t share our views on particular issues.’

‘While I think it’s fair enough for the Church and other religious leaders to set boundaries within which the Church thinks people should operate,’ Mr Abbott went on, ‘I think those boundaries have got to be wide, and within them lots of people of good will can come to different positions.’ The role of the Church in Mr Abbott’s view is to form the character of people who go into public life whilst leaving the details of policies themselves to those actually in public life.

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Mr Rudd spoke about the Gospel as both spiritual and social. ‘If you’re a person of Christian faith, and therefore you are animated by the Gospels, then it’s very difficult and improper to adopt a form of cafeteria Christianity,’ he said.

It is simply the Great Commandment. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. For me it has always been an inseparable question … [The former] cannot be clinically separated from your responsibilities to your fellow human beings.’

The details of those responsibilities were respectfully debated throughout the evening. Both Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott agreed, however, that the public space was not what it used to be. Mr Abbott reflected that in a previous era the politicians were of a more honourable breed, whereas Rudd was convinced that politicians of previous eras ‘did not have the daily unleashing of social media against them.’ The endless cycle of abuse on the part of media acts as a disincentive for good people to enter the fray.

When asked how the principles of Catholic Social Teaching could provide a vision for society, Archbishop Comensoli reminded the audience that the language of politics is deeply embedded in the Christian language. ‘We believe in a king, a kingdom, the reign of justice and the living out of the commandments in ways that are about the good and the flourishing of the people.’

He said the Church and the realm of faith can too be easily seen as a "spiritual personal reality" detached from the rest of society. ’But that is not the case. And the social teaching of the Church in this regard gives voice to that in a particular way. It is faith in action in the world.

’I think both Kevin and Tony have touched on something important, that not only the politics of our country but our institutions more generally, our society more generally, is struggling to articulate a sense of a common purpose. And I think that is playing out in terms of our strength to make decisions for the common good, and the capacity to be able to give consideration to the other in all that we do.’

Responding to the discussion, Professor Craven said his essay was designed to get people to think about what kinds of principles and values should frame and influence Australian policy. He said the one point on which both former prime ministers would agree was the ’value of values’. For a long time, it has been propositioned that the role of the government and law is one that should be free of value judgments. This was a preposterous idea in Craven’s opinion, since to accept the lack of values is to accept the worst of the ultimate values: that nothing has value.

’I think what it [values] can do is not tell you what to think, but how to think. And I think a lot of the examples we talked about tonight illustrate that.’

He said that education, for instance, ’has been the greatest work of the Catholic Church in this country, and probably the greatest work of government in this country. It's shifted entire tranches of people to levels of participation in society that they would never otherwise have had.’

While Catholic Social Teaching has a lot to offer, Archbishop Comensoli opined that the institutional Church is currently in a ’very weakened state’ which can undermine its work of bringing about a kingdom of peace, justice and goodwill.

’There are individuals who speak powerfully and strongly into that even in our Australian context, but I think there is something of a loss of that more generally. And perhaps that is something that we ought to be looking towards nourishing again.’

Copies of Shadow of the Cross by Greg Craven are available to purchase from Connor Court Publishing.