Archbishop warns of religious freedom erosion in Australia, calls for ‘saints for our time’

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia. | Credit: EWTN News

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney has raised the alarm over Australia’s incremental erosion of religious freedom in health care, education, and broader society.

In a written interview with CNA, the Dominican friar described the situation as a “house of human rights built on sand,” calling on Catholics “to be serious about being saints for our time.”

Fisher, a member of several Vatican bodies, pointed to “lawfare” and “many more examples of legislative or policy moves in our federal and state governments that are hostile to religion.”

He warned of the consequences of legislative and bureaucratic actions, which, he argued, can shred the very fabric of religious liberty.

Bans on silent prayer and requirement of ‘kill teams’

Fisher told CNA that the pace has notably quickened in recent years, pointing to authorities targeting silent prayer in public.

“If we consider life issues, recent years have seen the complete decriminalization of abortion, with some states requiring medical professionals with a conscientious objection to nonetheless refer a patient to an abortion provider,” he said.

The Australian prelate added that abortion also received “special protection, with even silent prayer within 150 meters [about 492 feet] of an abortion clinic now a criminal offense in many states.”

“At the other end of life, euthanasia has also been legalized, and while doctors do not have to participate in euthanasia and assisted suicide, Catholic aged-care facilities in three states are required to host kill teams on site to provide lethal drugs to a patient,” he added.

Forcible takeover of Catholic-run hospital

While Fisher told CNA that usually moves to obstruct the mission of the Church are “more subtle, like attacks on conscience or restrictions on who can be hired,” one case stood out in particular.

Pointing to the forced takeover of Catholic-run Calvary Hospital in the nation’s capital by the Australian Capital Territory, Fisher described the case as the most blatant interference with the Church’s mission in recent times.

The government took over and renamed “Calvary Hospital” to “North Canberra Hospital” in 2023, despite protests by a shocked archbishop and subsequent legal challenge. Costs and compensation are still making headlines in local media.

“Snatching the land, building, staff, and operations of a Catholic hospital was really just fast-tracking the same end to which these smaller, subtler strikes are aimed,” the archbishop said.

The battle over religious schools

In a country where one in five students attend Catholic schools, the prelate expressed deep concern over legislative efforts to curb the impact of Catholic institutions, especially their ability to evangelize.

“Those who object to the Church having any space in the public square are effectively being invited to engage in lawfare against our schools,” he said, adding this constituted “using anti-discrimination laws as a sword to stop us from operating in accordance with the Catholic ethos.”

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Addressing the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations imposing restrictions on religious schools’ ability to hire staff and present Catholic teachings without caveats, Fisher warned that such measures would fundamentally alter the nature of these schools.

“If its recommendations are implemented, Catholic schools will be largely indistinguishable from their public counterparts,” he warned.

Fisher also warned about risks from recent bureaucratic recommendations, such as stripping charitable status from religious institutions.

Such a move, the prelate warned, could devastate the Church’s ability to provide education, health, and welfare services.

The notion that religious institutions might no longer qualify for charitable status in such a way was “absurd,” Fisher asserted.

Human rights and Christian dignity

The archbishop pointed to the profound philosophical clash underpinning these legislative and bureaucratic actions.

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He told CNA that modern attempts to claim certain human rights while denying the existence of inherent human dignity — particularly as articulated by Christian anthropology — are fundamentally flawed.

“But this is as wise as building a house on sand; without the firm foundation of the infinite dignity of the human person the house of human rights will ultimately fall,” Fisher emphasized.

Steadfastness and a spiritual path forward

Looking ahead, the Sydney archbishop expressed hope that elected officials would recognize the significant contributions of religious believers to Australian society. He called on the Church and its faithful to remain steadfast in their mission, regardless of restrictive legislation and policies.

“We must be very serious about proclaiming the truth of marriage and family by the way we live our lives,” Fisher told CNA.

The Australian prelate also called on Catholics to take spiritual action: “The best thing we can do to protect religious freedom is to be serious about being saints for our time, committing ourselves to prayer, service, and the sacramental life.”

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