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  • Cardinal Pell's parting salvo raises questions for the Australian Church

Cardinal Pell's parting salvo raises questions for the Australian Church


The Church in Australia has reached another crossroads. In his final months the late Cardinal George Pell, conservative colossus of Australian Catholics, has publicly waged war on Pope Francis and his vision and legacy in a most deliberate and under-hand way. He did so through his posthumous article in The Spectator (UK) and his earlier, no longer anonymous, memorandum to fellow Cardinals. 

Pell will be remembered at a Pontifical High Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on February 2. Thousands of mourners from Australia and overseas and further huge media coverage are expected. According to the Cathedral Dean, ‘Cardinal Pell left a remarkable legacy for the Catholic Church in Australia’. 

Yet at the same time the international Synod of Bishops consultation has reached a critical stage. On January 12 members of the Oceania discernment and writing group met in Melbourne as part of this consultation. On February 5-10 the Oceania Assembly of the Synod will be held in Suva, Fiji, attended by Australia’s bishops, many of whom will have come almost directly from Pell’s Sydney Mass. Since October 2021, led by Pope Francis, the church has been fully engaged in this path-breaking exercise, which will conclude in October 2024. 

Our bishops would be wise to admit that there is now a gulf in perception and reality between these two events. The Synod is Pope Francis’ prize endeavour and will shape his legacy. Pell clearly did not believe in it and his recent statements, prior to his death and posthumously, have set out to trash both the Synod and the entire Francis papacy as, in his words, a catastrophic disaster. This obvious disconnect is an absurd situation. Australian bishops must continue to defend the Pope and his Synod. 

George Pell made it quite clear in his closing publications that he rejected Pope Francis’ vision of a synodal church. He condemned it as a catastrophe and ridiculed the Continental Stage Document (DCS) which preceded the continental assemblies of which the Oceania Assembly was just one. Pell dismissed this document, based on world-wide submissions from the Catholic community, as an ‘outpouring of New Age good will’ and riddled with ‘neo-Marxist jargon’. The first of two international assemblies will be held in Rome in October 2023 to discuss the working document which will emerge from these continental assemblies. 


'Are Pell’s attitudes representative of the Australian hierarchy? The probable answer is that he was representative of some powerful conservative elements within the hierarchy, but not of most of the bishops.'


Pell was once the predominant figure in the church in Australia. On synodality, Australia’s Catholic bishops must stand with Pope Francis; there is no doubt that most Australian Catholics are aligned with Francis and his synodal approach to church affairs. They have demonstrated this in their enthusiastic embrace of the fifth Plenary Council of Australia, just completed after four years of nation-wide consultation, including two assemblies. Many Australian Catholics, encouraged by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, invested enormous amounts of time, energy and, most importantly hope in this synodal adventure. Yet Pell never supported the Plenary Council and frequently derided its vision and aspirations. He saw expressions of synodality such as the Council as attacking episcopal prerogatives. He has now confirmed, using highly inflammatory language, that he viewed synodal assemblies like the Council as useless, even dangerous, exercises. 

Pell’s conservatism was never representative of the views of most ordinary Catholics. The balance of Australian Catholicism was always more moderate and centrist in contrast to his conservative social and political views. Pell was a climate sceptic, unlike Pope Francis who gave impetus to climate action through his encyclical Laudato Si. He was a strong believer in hierarchy and episcopal power and opposed to co-responsibility with lay Catholics in church governance. He was also opposed to equality for women in church governance and ministry. In all these matters, the evidence of public opinion polls, voting and Plenary Council submissions show that he was in the minority. 

Yet in a hierarchical system it is the power of the bishops which matters. Are Pell’s attitudes representative of the Australian hierarchy? The probable answer is that he was representative of some powerful conservative elements within the hierarchy, but not of most of the bishops. He even played a role in appointing some of them, within his own archdiocese and across the country, on a ‘like appoints like’ basis. 

But he was an autocratic individual by inclination rather than leader of a team, and his episcopal colleagues never regarded him as a ‘team player’. He demonstrated this when he instituted his own Melbourne Response to institutional child sexual abuse in 1996 rather than supporting the collective national program called ‘Towards Healing’.  He also broke ranks with his colleagues during the 1998 debate over the Howard government’s GST tax reform when he declared that there was no one Catholic position on tax reform though one had been decided. 

Fellow bishops were often intimidated by him. But given the chance to indicate their support for his leadership his colleagues did not elect Pell to represent them as President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Not only did enough of them not share his extreme conservatism but presumably the majority wanted a more collaborative leadership style than he offered. 

Despite this background the revelations of the extent of his disloyalty to Pope Francis, though not out of character, are still shocking. They were expressed with such venom and exaggeration that, if taken seriously, they threaten to undermine the direction of the church in Australia. 

They throw a shadow over hopes for a more synodal church. Pell never concealed his dislike for the local Plenary Council. Let us hope that those Australian bishops who admired him and stood with him are not politicking against Plenary Council reforms during the implementation stage of the Plenary Council decrees and the conduct of the Synod of Bishops’ consultation. Once the official mourning period is over, the future of a collaborative and co-responsible church in Australia depends upon discarding Pell’s legacy rather than embracing it. 





John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and was a member of the Plenary Council.

Main image: Cardinal George Pell.(World Youth Day via Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, George Pell, Pope Francis, Plenary, Synod, Bishops



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Existing comments

On several occasions during the ongoing process of Germany's "The Synodal Way", Pope Francis has had cause to issue firm cautions and corrections of calls and proposals for reforms that seek radical change to traditional Catholic Church teaching and practice - some of which are echoed in the calls and proposals presented in Australia's Plenary Council.
It may be necessary, given that the Pope's pursuit of a "truly synodal church" is regrettably precipitating serious and widespread confusion and disagreement, for the Holy Father to clarify further the Church's understanding of an authentic synodality.
Furthermore, the claimed "nationwide consultation, including two assemblies" in Australia sounds like window dressing, seeing that only a low percentage of John Warhurst's "ordinary Catholics" actually participated in the Plenary Council proceedings.

John RD | 31 January 2023  
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Well over 2,000 Catholics registered for the Convocation of Catholics last night auspiced by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform - an extraordinary response for such a gathering and indicative of “ordinary Catholics’” appreciation of Francis’ synodal leadership.

Peter Johnstone | 03 February 2023  

My experience of "ordinary Catholics" is of ones who express their faith by regular prayer and participation in the sacraments; who see no intrinsic incompatibility between hierarchy and equality in the Church; who, while dismayed and appalled by clerical abuse, nonetheless do not use their grief and indignation as a platform for dispensing with celibacy as a requirement for priestly ordination, nor as grounds for the ordination of women; who engage in practical activities of support and service consistent with the Church's social teachings to the needy in our society, especially refugees and other poor and marginalized people; who recognize the importance of traditional marriage and family to themselves and the wider community, and of schooling that instructs and reinforces in the young sound catechesis, prayer and sacramental practice; and who accept Vatican II's articulation of the distinction between the priesthood of all the baptized and that of the ordained in the Church. Such "ordinary Catholics" are not routinely disaffected in their appraisal of the Church, and accept Christ's mandate to make him known and loved with confidence of his presence and assistance in their endeavours to live out the Gospel with the abiding guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church as Christ promised, and acceptance of the Church's official teachings on faith and morals as the primary sources of informed conscientious decision-making. Above all, they strive to live out Christ's commandment: "Love one another, as I have loved you" as followers of Christ and witnesses to him.
Though evangelization is nowhere in the world complete or "100% pure" as Archbishop Anthony Fisher observes (The Catholic Weekly, 30/10/2022), "ordinary Catholics" like these exist today in tens of millions all over the world.
+Fisher also cites distinguished sociologist Rodney Stark, who, in his research and critique of secularization theory that underlies many Plenary Council and Germany's "Synodal Way"
proposals, affirms: " ... participation rates were, if anything, lower in medieval times than today and ... periods of high engagement have been the exception" (loc. cit.). "Ordinary Catholics" may not be prominent where academic elites gather, but their voices, when engaged, have much to contribute to a genuine synodality in renewing Christ's Church, today and always.

John RD | 03 February 2023  

In this instance, Bob Menzies offers some sage advice. On the night of June 13, 1951, the Canberra winter ball was in full swing, when Menzies was informed of the passing of Ben Chifley. After announcing Chifley's death, Mr and Mrs Menzies left the ball as a silent salute to a formidable opponent whose race had been run.

I would suggest now is the time to take pause on the many controversies which attended George Pell, and allow the rituals of Christian death to run their course. Surely, analysis, argument and evaluation can respect this timetable - in a group which highlights the transition from this life to the next as the most defining experience of every believer.

Bill Burke | 01 February 2023  

Pope Francis wants to renew the structure and functioning of the Church. Others want to go beyond this to doctrinal matters. The Magisterium is not up for grabs and this needs to be made crystal clear.

Edward Fido | 01 February 2023  

Hello John: allow me a few points.

In affluent Western Societies including Australia, Christianity in whatever mutation is evaporating into history. That shows up in the census data, empty churches and extinction of religious orders. Pell, Ratzinger and the progressive pope-in-waiting Cardinal Hollerick have all said as much.

I do not disagree with your reforms but they are not going to make much difference. More or less, what you propose have been tried in mainstream Protestant churches to no avail. They are just as dead.

Of course, true believers will say they are not interested in popularity but in Truth. Be that as it may, there are many dead religions gathering dust in the history cupboard, believed to be Truth by the people of their day, and are now only thesis material. But I am not being a vulgarian. The purists overlook is what Jesus said (had he read the Chairman): religion is a fish which swims in the sea of the people.

We are not in a rerun of the Reformation. The crisis of Christianity is more spiritual than in the sixteenth century. In our time, the Church must experience death and rise again. If it doesn’t resurrect it’s not a big problem: we will then know it wasn’t Truth.

An individual person claiming to be a Christian may well find they are required to journey, to experience loss and hopefully find a new place. It’s a tough gig being a Christian these days. Alternatively, they can instead become a censor at Eureka Street.

Fosco | 01 February 2023  

To listen to "progressive" Catholics, it is the "extreme conservatism" of "an autocratic individual" like Cardinal Pell that obstructs the road to nirvana. Yet most appear oblivious to actual persecution of Catholics who think differently--like Mark Houck who has just been acquitted by a US jury of violating a federal law on access to abortion clinics. When local police refused to charge him a SWAT team of 25 armed FBI officers raided his home early morning to arrest him in front of his wife and terrified children. His lawyer stated, "The Biden Department of Justice's intimidation against pro-life people and people of faith has been put in its place."
At home an unapologetic ABC promotes another anti-Catholic smear over Christian morality being taught by Opus Dei, and the Marxist "Go to Hell Pell" protest will mark his funeral.
Open Doors statistics showed 2021 the worst year in history for the persecution of Christians. Yet where persecution is highest, so is weekly Mass attendance for Catholics: Nigeria 94%; USA 17%; Netherlands 7%.
Many Netherland experts blame their collapse of faith on their 1960s "Pastoral Council" led by clerics and theologians wanting to modernize the Church by changing its doctrine.

Ross Howard | 02 February 2023  
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The doctrine of the Catholic Church has not changed although its interpretation has changed in line with advances in our understanding of our place within the earth system. We have moved from "multply and subdure creation" where we had a prevlidged position to realising that we are part of an interdependent world in which we have the ability to destroy God's creation. Humility has replaced hubris. Sadly some so-called Catholics are still stuck in the past and are fighting a rear guard action with enormous damage to the Church.

Gavin A. O'Brien | 13 February 2023  

I totally disagree wth Cardinal Pell’s comments and attitude towards Pope Francis and his criticism of the great work of the Plenary Council. His views, I,’m sure, would be supported by a minority of ultra-conservative people within the Catholic Church.
Many of the people in our Parish were glad of the opportunity to voice his/her opinion of what they desire our modern Church should look like and embrace. One person in the group said this was the first time in their long life that they were. asked to voice their opinion and wishes.
They each wrote their ideas and comments on a piece of paper and we collated these and sent them off to the committee. We were delighted with the feed-back we received, knowing that our voices had been heard.
We congratulate the team on the wonderful work they. are doing and pray God’s blessing on the whole project.
From Sr. Robyn McNamara and the people of the Gilgandra Parish, NSW

Sr. Robyn McNamara | 02 February 2023  
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Sister Robyn, why do you employ the language of politics - "ultra-conservative people" - to describe Catholics who do not share your point of view on matters that radically affect the Catholic Church? With respect, I suggest the issues on which disagreements among Catholics currently arise are profoundly theological and spiritual in form and consequence, not secular.

John RD | 03 February 2023  

I agree with Sr R the Plenary council in my area was welcomed by the parishioners (however not the clergy) wanting a more open and welcoming church. We live in hope that the Bishops will follow Pope Francis for at the moment this doesn't seem to be the case as areas that he has made changes to for example people who should now be welcomed to receive Holy Communion has not changed in our parishes . Are they afraid of losing their power??

Catherine S | 03 February 2023  

I did not know Cardinal Pell personally, although when I asked all the Bishops of Australia for some money in 2000 to bring a choir from East Timor for a tour of Australia, he was the first cab off the rank.

I had a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald recently where I alluded to "vitriol and adulation" as being two sides of the polarising coin in relation to the Cardinal. I wrote the letter before I knew of Pell's anonymous statement. I was extremely disappointed at that revelation, to put it mildly. I am opposed to anonymity except in the rarest of situations.

Any damage the Church has suffered through the actions or inaction of any of its leaders is regrettable but is not the main issue. We are not here primarily to serve the Church, to protect it, to ensure its status, to rush to its defence. We, the Church, are here to imitate Christ, to be Christ in the world, to live the message of Jesus. The Church is doing an immense amount of good in spirituality, education, health, social service, and many forms of outreach. Catholic voices are raised against injustices, egging politicians towards the common good and joining with others of goodwill for what is right.

Prayer and worship are important facets of Catholic life and without them "work" loses its primary impetus, but there is also the danger that Catholics can be satisfied with Sunday/daily Mass and do no more. There are parishes where nothing happens. Nothing except some Masses, where few even greet others and where the sermon can be unintelligible or meaningless.

The "worship of the Church" can be an ambiguous term.

Your article is an important one John, highlighting the great necessity of the Church to discern the way forward in a very different world. Your leadership and that of many others is doing so much good.

Susan Connelly | 03 February 2023  

'Synodality' is about making the Church's administration a bit more accountable and responsive to its end users, the long suffering, often silent people in the pews. The late Cardinal Pell was dead set against this, he was in many ways, The Last Authoritarian, who felt this would lead to something like the Reformation. Properly handled, I am not sure it will. The German Catholic bishops are off target here and they are being gently brought back into line. Sr Robyn McNamara and the good people of Gilgandra parish have got it right. Australian country people often do, God bless them. If the Church does not live at grass roots, it will not thrive.

Edward Fido | 03 February 2023  

Cardinal Pell's Requiem Mass at St Mary's regrettably says a lot about him, his model of Church and those who choose to make a model out of him. No lay participation, no women and almost no semblance of dipping into the vernacular of contemporary Australian Catholic liturgy. It augurs ominously for the future of the Sydney Church.

Michael Furtado | 15 February 2023  
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The large number of lay participants - men and women - in the congregation makes me wonder if we're talking about the same Requiem, MF.

John RD | 16 February 2023  

Tony Abbott was there Michael. Wasn't that 'lay participation' ?

Ginger Meggs | 26 February 2023  

Thank you John Warhurst for such an open and honest report on deceased Cardinal Pell’s letter to the church.
I would hope that our Parishes would follow suite , in passing on these important happening s , which may be very influential in our catholic thought!
I feel out Church May be far too secretive, perhaps not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ Christ asked us to repent which means change our direction , perhaps turn around to find anew, where His grace may lead us!
What a Bishop does could be of great importance to our Faith journey, and at the least could engender new discussion and faith sharing ,.
Our Christ centred Pope Is calling us to do just that , in asking the laity to evangelise in so many grace filled ways !!
Thank you John for your involvement, and comments !

Introna Bernadette | 04 March 2023  

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