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News News Church leaders give Abbott moral lessons
TONY Abbott, Australia's most prominent Catholic politician, is at war with the churches over their criticisms of the Coalition's industrial relations policy.

Church leaders have hit out at the Health Minister after he essentially told them to butt out of politics and stick to encouraging morality among their flocks.

Catholic social justice groups have expressed fears that the Government's WorkChoices legislation unfairly affects the vulnerable and cuts the time families can spend together.

But Mr Abbott this week denied there were moral problems with the IR laws saying, "a political argument is not transformed into a moral argument simply because it's delivered with an enormous dollop of sanctimony".

The man who once wanted to enter the priesthood himself said in comments to the Institute of Public Affairs that were reported by the ABC: "I do think that if church men spent more time encouraging virtue in people and less time demanding virtue from governments we would have ultimately a better society".

But the Catholic Bishop of Parramatta Kevin Manning said Mr Abbott sounded like "someone who is panicking". One of the basic principles of Catholic social justice "is that the goods of the world are destined for all".

He said WorkChoices put business profit before people. "I've met numerous young people working for substandard wages and conditions because of this legislation."

World Vision head Tim Costello said Mr Abbott's comments displayed a "fundamental misunderstanding" of Jesus and Catholic teaching. "Jesus didn't get crucified because he just went around turning water into wine or wine into blood and saying 'be good'. He got crucified because he asked questions about who really had power in the society and (talked about) how the kingdom of God includes the powerless and marginalised."

The more conservative Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen sympathised with the difficulty of politicians making policy, but said "nor is it right to define virtue narrowly as though it is merely to do with personal morality".

Archbishop Jensen said: "I have a problem with a society in which unionism is a dying phenomenon, because while unionism is not always effective or good, the capacity of being able to join with fellow workers to achieve results is a very good thing."

The chairman of the Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee, Canon Ray Cleary, said Mr Abbott appeared to have contradicted Prime Minister John Howard who said recently that "he respected the right of church leaders to participate in moral debates including on the issues of industrial relations".

But Mr Abbott was yesterday standing firm, saying through a spokeswoman that "the challenge for Christian critics of the Government's industrial relations policy is to explain how 10.9 per cent unemployment under the former government is more fair and more just than 4.2 per cent under this Government".

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