Since taking over the Liberal leadership in December last year, Abbott has given to treating his Catholicism as a political liability, something to be quarantined from the serious work of policy development and public engagement.
In so doing, not only has he allowed his liberal demons to drown out the better angels of his conservative nature, but he is also neglecting perhaps the one truly radical weapon the Coalition [Liberal Party of Australia and National Party of Australia] has in its political arsenal: the Catholic vision of civil society founded on mutualism and an economics of gratuity.
Abbott would do well to take a leaf out of Tory leader David Cameron's book. For what few people outside Britain realise, and might be surprised to learn, is that the political manifesto of the Conservative Party has been shaped to a large extent by a theologian.
Indeed, Cameron is a rarity among conservative politicians today in his preparedness to recognise how Catholic social teaching converges at many points with the very best of the conservative tradition.
And so, during his time as Tory leader, what doubtless began as a blatantly poll-driven attempt to re-brand the Conservative Party by cleansing it of every last vestige of the Thatcherite era has become a thoroughgoing transformation the Party's political identity: From the 2006 "Vote Blue, Go Green" campaign that sought to re-establish the historical bond between political conservatism and environmental conservationism through practical local action, through Cameron's 2009 "Big Society" speech as his most emphatic rejection of Thatcher's "there is no such thing as society," right up to the launch of the Conservative Manifesto last month.
But while Cameron's "Big Society" has attracted a great deal media coverage - and, let's be frank, not all of it good - at home and abroad, the extent to which both the internal logic and the policy articulation of the "Big Society" have been shaped by a distinctively Catholic social vision has been almost completely ignored outside of certain quarters of the British press. Consequently, Phillip Blond is not as well known outside of the UK as perhaps he ought to be.
For it is Blond - formerly lecturer in theology at the provincial University of Cumbria, and now director of the influential think-tank ResPublica - that has decisively inflected the course of Conservative policy, apparently by the sheer audacity of his ideas.
What seems to have attracted David Cameron is the way that Blond articulates a Catholic framework that appeals to the Tory cardinal virtues of personal responsibility, social conservatism, the free market and small government, all the while framing them within an overarching narrative about the post-war unravelling of the moral, social and economic fabric of the UK - in a phrase, "Broken Britain."
"Broken Britain" is, of course, the flip-slide, the negative inverse of the "Big Society." But, Blond insists, without a proper understanding of what has gone wrong - of how both the Left and the Right have abandoned the notion of public virtue, have left civil society to the ravages of the market, and have merely consolidated the overreach of the state - there can be no accurate prescription of how to fix it.
Cameron found this argument persuasive, as he made clear in his "Big Society" speech last October:
"In this world where state control is a substitute for moral choice and personal responsibility, obligation and duty are in danger of becoming dead concepts instead of living value systems," he said.
"In the words of Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica, 'the state... has dispossessed the people and amassed all power to itself... This centralisation of power has made people passive when they should be active and cynical when they should be idealistic. This attitude only makes things worse - the more people think they can't make a difference, the more they opt out from society.'
"The once natural bonds that existed between people - of duty and responsibility - have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state - regulation and bureaucracy."
Blond's solution to the ever-deepening British malaise comes in the form of four imperatives: We must restore virtue to public life and discourse (calling for a new "high mass culture" in place of the inane mediocrity of the commercial media, and a recovery of John Reith's understanding of the BBC's vocation as providing "equal access to all things great"); We must re-moralise the market (placing capitalism at the service of the common good by embedding it in society); We must re-localise the economy (through such things as community land trusts and cooperatives); and we must re-capitalise the poor (through the provision, not simply of welfare, but of increasing scales of property ownership).
Taken together, these imperatives form the backbone of Blond's own manifesto, which was published a few weeks ago: Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It.
But one cannot help but notice the deep convergence of Blond's 'Red Tory' program with that advocated in Pope Benedict XVI's third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Standing consciously in the tradition of the great socio-economic encyclicals of Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum), John XXIII (Pacem in Terris), Paul VI (Populorum Progressio) and John Paul II (Centesimus Annus), Benedict XVI goes further than any of his predecessors in articulating an integral Catholic vision for the way that the economy might enhance and strengthen civil society:
"Alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and the various types of public enterprise, there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves," he said.
"It is from their reciprocal encounter in the marketplace that one may expect hybrid forms of commercial behaviour to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilising the economy. Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself."
Doubtless many will dismiss Blond's and Benedict's proposals for the civilising of the economy through a recovery of mutualism and gratuity as being too far removed from the brutal realities of contemporary politics to ever be taken seriously. Nevertheless, Blond has been full of praise for David Cameron's policy translation of his ideas.
Writing in Prospect magazine last week he said, "My ideas and recommendations find full and serious expression in both Cameron's concept of a 'big society', and the policy ideas within the Conservatives' manifesto. Cameron's big society vision is the most transformative the public have been offered in a generation."
It goes without saying that not everyone is a fan either of Blond or of Cameron's "Big Society" Conservatism. In the wake of the rapid disappearance of the Tories' lead in the polls, there have been calls inside the Party for "more red-meat Toryism" and "less red Tory nonsense."
And Blond himself has been dismissed as an overinflated country parson who has ventured too far outside his parish bounds. In a recent review for the London Review of Books, Jonathan Raban wrote:
"Red Tory is like a 300-page Sunday sermon, preached by an autodidact country parson whose shelves are stuffed with old blue and white Pelican books on subjects like modern psychology, literature, sociology, government and economics, which the parson (in civilian life, Blond used to be a lecturer in theology) believes must hold the key to the alien and ugly civilisation he encounters on his parish rounds."
Whatever one thinks, these are very interesting, and potentially transformative, days for British politics. Tony Abbott should be watching with interest.
Scott Stephens is the ABC's Religion and Ethics Online editor.