It seems that the advent of Dominic Perrottet as Premier of NSW has placed Nine newspapers between The Rock and a contemporary sectarian hard place. How else to explain the article by Stephanie Dowrick (aka The Reverend Stephanie Dowrick) in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Monday?

Dowrick’s piece – which was titled “Power and preaching don’t mix” – was illustrated by a Jim Pavlidis cartoon featuring two hands holding a depiction of ­Rosary beads (a Catholic symbol) at the end of which was a gender symbol representing women.

Now Dowrick is not a regular Nine columnist. Which suggests that Nine editors either commissioned, or accepted, what was a rant against Perrottet and his religious faith. The sub-heading indicated the tone of the article: “As dogmatism sits in wait, NSW must do better than ­Dominic Perrottet.”

Dowrick said little of the achievements of a young man in politics (Perrottet is 39 years of age) who has been chosen by his peers to be Premier of NSW, after serving successfully as NSW Treasurer. What matters to Dowrick is that, as she put it, Perrottet is “a highly conservative Catholic with views that represent the most extreme end of a male-­institutional church”.

According to Dowrick, Perrottet is not only “too young” and “too narrow in life experience and perspective” but also represents a “growing representation of highly conservative Christians in positions of great power” which needs to be “contained”. The widening of the target from “highly conservative Catholics” to “highly conservative Christians” is designed to include Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom Dowrick depicted as a Pentecostal Christian – no more than that.

And that is what distinguishes The Rock from the modern day anti-Catholic sectarians. Wal Campbell (1906-79) set up The Rock weekly newspaper, which railed against Catholics from the late 1940s until the mid-1990s. It commenced with Protestant support but died as anti-Catholic ­sectarianism among Protestants declined.

These days, the likes of Dowrick do not target Catholics as such. Their focus is on those they depict as conservative Catholics. Hence Dowrick’s praise for “progressive, vibrant Catholicism”. That is, the kind of Catholics who are aligned to Dowrick’s social and political views. Other Catholics are unfit for public office, it seems.

As it turned out, Nine was not the first out of the block with the conservative Catholic line. On Sunday, ABC Online published an article by Maryanne Taouk and Paige Cockburn titled “Meet Dom Perrottet: the conservative Catholic father of six who will be NSW’s next Premier”. The reference with Perrottet being a ­“father of six” soon became a catchcry. However, as the saying goes: “What’s wrong with being a father of six?” Alas, ABC Online did not say – the implication was enough.

Taouk and Cockburn made much of the fact that Perrottet spent his final school years at Redfield College in the Sydney suburb of Dural which they incorrectly said was run by Catholic priests who belong to the Opus Dei religious order. Not so. The school chaplain is an Opus Dei priest. This error was corrected by the ABC. The point was to depict Opus Dei as some kind of extremist Catholic religious order.

Founded in Spain in 1928, Opus Dei has at times been a controversial force within the Catholic Church. But these days, especially in nations such as ­Australia, it is part of the conservative Catholic tradition. That’s all. The likes of Redfield College and Tangara School for Girls are supported by parents because they value their education and social standards.

Paul Collins, the church historian and former priest, is a Catholic of the liberal theology kind and not a theological conservative. Interviewed by the ABC on The World Today on Wednesday, Collins said that Opus Dei is widely misunderstood. He added: “I think we need not worry too much about Mr Perrottet. He’s a normal, sensible person; he’s a conservative Catholic.”

Unfortunately, some prominent Australian commentators lack the judgment and knowledge of Collins – who understands that the roots of anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia go back to European settlement in 1788.

After Dowrick’s article was published, every letter in The Sydney Morning Herald was hostile to Perrottet. One referred to Perrottet’s “puritanical politics” while another told him to “stop pushing that pram”. Enough said.

There was much more of this. Jane Caro got a free run on ABC TV News on Monday to declare that Perrottet becoming premier would be “a problem for women, LGBTQI people and anyone of a different faith”. She did not say why. And the Reason Party (formerly the Sex Party) in Victoria, which is headed by Fiona Patten, declared that all “MPs should be required to disclose religious ­affiliation on their statement of interests”. Patten seems unaware that there is no established religion in Australia, where division between religion and politics has always been a fact of life.

Phillip Adams weighed in with tweets containing references to a “Catholic cult premier”, “Opus Dei in Macquarie Street” plus pointers to “self-flagellation” and, wait for it, the late and unlamented Spanish dictator General Franco. Even ABC Media Watch host Paul Barry in his only reference to Perrottet last Monday referred to him as a “conservative Catholic”.

However, some sensible voices emerged who presented the NSW Premier as being part of the Australian mainstream, in which he has operated for some time. Tom Koutsantonis, the former South Australian Labor treasurer, tweeted, asking, “Why are we ­describing politicians by their faith?” He added that he has worked with Perrottet as a fellow treasurer and they “never discussed faith once”.

David Gonski, a business figure and UNSW chancellor, told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jordan Baker that he has worked with Perrottet and “not seen anything but an open and intelligent mind”. Gonski added that the NSW Premier does not exhibit negativism and “savours different people’s ideas”.

Koutsantonis and Gonski know and have worked with ­Perrotett. Unlike Dowrick, they do not regard him as a religious or ideological fundamentalist. Moreover, anti-conservative Catholic sectarianism is not the rock on which they assess contemporary premiers.