Portrait of a Pro-Life Catholic from Down Under

Deal W. Hudson
March 4, 2010

“Cardinal Pell is an inspiration to all Catholics in Australia,” says Cory Bernardi, a pro-life Catholic senator from South Australia. Bernardi, along with his wife Sinead and two young sons, attends the traditional Latin Mass in his hometown of Adelaide. I spoke with him a few months ago in Washington, D.C., as I was preparing for my trip “down under.”

“The Latin Mass is where the pews are full,” he told me. “But you can’t get elected in Australia talking about God – you have to speak of your faith subtly.” In spite of that, Bernardi has a rather high profile among Australian politicians as a proponent of family values; he is also the author of two books to help parents teach their children the value of exercise and how to handle money.

It’s clear that Bernardi takes physical health to heart: As a student at the University of South Australia, he distinguished himself as an athlete, becoming part of the Australian rowing team and participating in the 1989 World Championships. When an injured back kept him out of the Olympics a few years later, he took a job overseas with a German construction company. While working in Germany, he was struck by a car while loading some beams and was pinned to a truck. The shock of surviving the accident brought him back to Australia.

In 1993, Bernardi bought a pub in Adelaide where he met the woman he would marry three years later, but not before life intervened again: The year after returning to Australia, he became seriously ill with tuberculosis and spent three months in isolation at a hospital and another six months in isolation at home. He proposed to Sinead, an Irish immigrant, after coming out of his medical exile.

Bernardi sold the pub and taught himself to be a stockbroker, the trade he plied from 1996 to 2003. He successfully launched his own fund, eventually selling it as he became more involved in politics. By 1998, he’d become the president of the South Australian branch of the Liberal Party – he was only 28 years old. (The term “liberal” in Australian politics does not carry the American connotation.)

When the senator from his area retired in 2006, the Liberal Party nominated Bernardi to the seat. At age 36, he entered the Australian Senate as one of twelve Senators from South Australia. When he made a speech against a bill authorizing equal rights for same-sex couples, he caused some consternation among fellow liberals.

He then fell into disfavor with some in the party leadership, so he started a blog to “bypass the traditional media.” He began receiving thousands of e-mails, letters, and cards thanking him for his defense of marriage. As he told me, the public view of his political profile is “free-market,” “social conservative,” and, predictably, “right-winger.”

Bernardi told me that 68 percent of the Australian electorate identify themselves as Christian, though “they are a bit wary about mixing religion and politics.” There’s a much stronger sense, he adds, of the “separation of church and state” in Australia than in America.

He also took a stance against the abortifacient RU-486 and began rallying support from across the political parties where there are a number of strong Catholics. He also received support from Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Anglicans, and members of the small Family First Party.

Bernardi said his recent visit to America was prompted by a desire to create an Australian network of social conservatives. His foundation is designed to develop a new generation of political leadership for the future of his country.

He knows the American model will not translate directly to a country where the mixture of religion and politics is frowned upon. But for someone who has overcome so much adversity and skipped nimbly from one career to another, Bernardi might just be the man to make it happen.

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