The Very Reverend Peter Catt is the Dean of Brisbane’s St John’s Anglican Cathedral. He formed the lobby group Progressive Christians Australia to give a voice to liberal-minded Christians. He talks here to Alex Downie about the struggles of generating media attention, the role the church plays in enabling domestic violence, and his unorthodox personal path to Christianity.
HS: How did you become religious?
PC: I’m not from a religious family at all, in fact in my teen years I was quite militantly atheistic. I did a PhD in evolutionary biology, and through that process I discovered the idea of being struck by awe. Eventually I appreciated that that was a religious experience, and I found a home in the Anglican church, which in my experience is open to helping people explore the synthesis between science and religion.
HS: How did your family react to you becoming religious?
PC: My dad was a bit disturbed at first, but when he realised that I wasn’t going to lose my social conscience, and in fact that I understood my religious faith as actually requiring social justice, he was cool with it.
HS: You’re the president of the progressive group, Christian Voice Australia. I was wondering what prompted you to start the group?
PC: A bunch of us thought that people who were politically progressive weren’t doing enough to be organised. There were a lot of conservative lobby groups doing a good job of getting out there, and we thought it was important for there to be more than one Christian voice in the public sphere.
HS: Have you found the media has been receptive to a stronger Christian voice?
PC: I think there is a large sector of the media that prefers to be able to set up a clash, who like the idea of conservative Christians clashing with social progressives. We’re a bit surprised by how often our press releases get no traction at all.
HS: Do you think that religious groups have a role to play in politics? What do you say to people who say there should be a separation of church and politics?
PC: My understanding is that even people who aren’t involved with politics are involved with politics in the status quo. You’re either advocating for change, or you’re supporting the current situation. So with refugee policy for instance, people are either advocating for a change in policy, or they’re signalling that they’re OK with the current policy and therefore complicit in Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers. Politics works best when as many people as possible are involved in the political process.
HS: What role do you think the church currently plays in enabling or preventing domestic violence? How does the doctrine of headship* contribute to this?
PC: I think that male headship is a problematic doctrine. Certainly my pastoral experience is that that doctrine contributes to domestic violence, because it encourages a power imbalance in the relationship. So from that point of view it’s a problem.
The good news is that many churches are waking up to that. There are lots of churches where the doctrine of headship is not taught, and certainly not proclaimed. And I know that the Queensland church has a resource kit for churches to use to help their congregations talk about domestic violence. So there’s been some active responses to domestic violence from churches in Queensland, that’s the positive side.
HS: What’s the negative side of it? Do you think there are some churches that encourage women to stay with abusive partners?
PC: I’ve certainly heard of male pastors telling women to stay in abusive relationships. Their logic is that breaking the marriage vow is the worse of two evils. So being bashed is an evil, but her breaking the marriage vow is worse. So that would be the extreme negative side, my hope is that fewer and fewer pastors hold that view.
Even to come back a step from that, I think there’s a lot of subliminal pressure, talking about how precious marriage is, that sees people obliged to stay in bad relationships. I think there needs to be more talk about how, if marriage isn’t good for a person, they should get out of it. Marriage is for people, and people are more important than the institution. Which I think is essential for Christian teaching anyway—people matter.
* According to the headship doctrine, a man is the head of a woman, and wives are to submit to their husbands.
Photo Credit: Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce