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Two lives



Two important figures in the Catholic Church passed away over the summer. Although they’re no longer with us, Pope Benedict and Cardinal George Pell will continue to have a significant influence on the life of the Church.  

All of us know what it means to live a segmented life. We each have public and private selves; the face we put on when we deal with people we come into contact with in our public lives, and the inner self that only our family and close acquaintances might get to see.

The two Catholic leaders who passed away this summer both lived in the public spotlight for much of their lives, but they also each lived a private life of which we only ever gained glimpses. While most Catholics have opinions about them, our understanding of them is incomplete, and those of us who didn’t know them tend to fill in the details based on which aspects of their public persona best align with our own attitudes.

In their public life, both Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell had a significant influence on the Church. There are many who found inspiration in their words. Josef Ratzinger was a renowned theologian even before he was elected Pope, and his encyclicals will be an enduring testament to his elegant and rigorous mind. He was also capable of speaking across ideological lines – his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate applied the social justice teachings of the Church to a world recovering from financial crisis. It was a prophetic vision for a new economic and social world order that was (and still is) sorely needed, and laid the groundwork for the environmental and social call to action in Laudato Si’.

Both men also championed a Church strongly grounded in doctrine, and opposed any accommodation with the world that might water down cherished beliefs – what Pope Benedict described as the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. As the Church opened up to more considered and synodal approaches under Pope Francis, many tried to use Pope Benedict as a centre for opposition (Pope Benedict, to his credit, was not drawn into the battles). Meanwhile, even in his final days Cardinal Pell continued to warn of the dangers of synodal processes he perceived to be ‘hostile’ to apostolic tradition.

While both men had their followers, others were discouraged by the visions of the Church they put forward. Australians will remember Pope Benedict’s 2007 removal of Bishop Bill Morris in Toowoomba after he raised the possibility of the ordination of women as a response to declining numbers of priests – just a few years before Pope Francis created a commission to explore the possibility of women deacons. Cardinal Pell was quick to defend Church teachings on sexuality, marriage and divorce, resisting any attempts to address issues such as communion for the divorced and remarried, or to engage with the experiences of LGBTIQ+ Catholics.


'While the Church today is different than the one they strove to build, both were influential enough that there are many who will continue to champion their vision for the faith into the future.' 


We should also acknowledge that particularly for abuse survivors and their supporters, the Cardinal’s death was another reminder of the suffering they had been through. While the High Court unanimously found him not guilty of the charges brought against him in Victoria, he will still be forever linked in people’s minds to the Catholic Church’s failure to protect the vulnerable and respond adequately to its mistakes. 

As the clerical sexual abuse crisis unfolded in Australia and around the world, people looked for leadership and pastoral care from both men. Supporters might point to the response that Cardinal Pell put in place in Melbourne, and the changes that Pope Benedict (as cardinal) instigated to make it easier to investigate and discipline offenders. Many others found their responses wanting, particularly when it came to tackling the causes of the issues. For them, both Pope Benedict and Cardinal Pell were emblematic of a Church more interested in clerical self-preservation than reckoning with the scourge.

The private lives of these two public figures are far less understood. We still know little of the inner life of Josef Ratzinger, and the pressures and difficulties that led to his resignation as Pope. The impression one gets is that he was comfortable as a writer and theological leader, but struggled with pastoral burdens and governance, particularly when it came to organisational reform.

The accounts of those who encountered Pell could almost be describing two different people. The tributes from those who knew him spoke of a warm and genial person, albeit one that could be forthright in his opinions. Others remembered Cardinal Pell from his media interviews and appearances at the Royal Commission, where he seemed at times unmoved by the pain the Church had caused. We don’t know how much the burden of negative public opinion weighed on him. Cardinal Pell’s prison diaries highlight the deep faith that drove him, but not any doubts he might have had to grapple with.

While we’ll never truly know their inner lives, what we can say is that each of these men lived public lives marked by significant transitions. One was a prominent leader in the Church who rose to be Pope, who became the first pope in modern times to retire. The other was the most prominent Catholic figure in Australian society, who became a lightning rod for public anger and pain.

While the Church today is different than the one they strove to build, both were influential enough that there are many who will continue to champion their vision for the faith into the future.  





Michael McVeigh is Head of Publishing and Digital Content at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.

Main image: Cardinal George Pell and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI look on during the Papal Farewell and Volunteer Thank You at The Domain during World Youth Day on July 21, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by World Youth Day via Getty Images)

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Cardinal Pell, Pope Benedict, Catholic Church



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God always Wins! As do they who give their life to the best of their ability, and by the Grace of God, to the Truth: "But these things are Eternal Life: 'They shall know you, for you alone are The God of Truth, and Yeshua The Messiah whom you have sent." John 17:3. As Pope Benedict and George Pell did. They are now rewarded, with the taste of Eternal Bliss! Eternal Life! A Bliss/Life that awaits all who are known to Him by their name and call Him ABBA.

AO | 21 January 2023  
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Yes thankfully God does know the truth at Judgement time.

Jan Wright | 23 January 2023  

A very optimistic synopsis AO on their eternal abode.

Francis Armstrong | 24 January 2023  

A very respectful article Michael that underlines their deeply traditional ideological convictions and historical importance in Catholicism.
However we should also remember it was the cabal of Benedict, Pell and Coleridge- all arch CFD conservatives, that deep sixed the career of Bill Morris on a trumped up charge of heresy and forced him into premature retirement and out of the public debate on church reform.
With Pell quietly white anting Pope Francis behind the scenes in Rome under a pseudonym and lobbying candidates for the next conclave it can hardly be said he was a unifying force in the reforms Francis is trying to force through.

Francis Armstrong | 22 January 2023  

As regards influence, to continue the mis-quotation of a former Chinese premier, it may be "too early to say".
My generation reacted with dismay in 1968 to Humanae Vitae but now we realise that it was "decisive in dispelling belief in the infallibility of the pope in questions of morality" (quote from Fr Mark Patrick Hederman) - and so look back on it with gratitude. Future generations may look back at Cardinal Pell's pronouncements on climate change and again be grateful that it impelled them to trust science rather than dogma.
Two thousand years ago there weren't many press columns on the death of a Galilean carpenter.

The Holy Spirit works in ways that seem mysterious to us.

Perhaps Father Ted Kennedy of Redfern may come to be regarded as the most important Catholic leader in Australian society from our period.

Joseph Fernandez | 24 January 2023  

Over 25 years ago Eureka Street (pp24-27) told the truth fearlessly.Some of us yearn for a return to those days. https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/uploads/File/pdf/EurekaStreetClassic/Vol7No3.pdf

Margaret | 25 January 2023  

What a pity Eureka St chose to mark the deaths of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Pell with an article (January 25th), which said nothing that even the most casual observer would not have been aware of. The subtext went something like, “We must say something about the passing of these two senior members of the Church. Let’s limit our commentary by speaking of both into the same article. And let’s say as little of substance as possible.
In George Pell’s case, I understand Eureka St would have had to go to a little trouble to find a commentator who could resist buying in to only one side of the controversy about the life of this ‘most prominent Catholic figure’. Not that a strongly worded appraisal would have concerned George. Whether with the press or on the football field, he loved a fight. The fact is however that there are still plenty out there who knew him well enough to provide informed commentary. By ‘informed’, I don’t necessarily mean meticulously balanced. That may not be possible. And I certainly don’t mean definitive. His Eminence awaits analysis from a serious historian. But I suspect even then, his life will remain an enigma

Lawrence Moloney | 25 January 2023  

… different FROM, not “than”.

Karen | 25 January 2023  

Today I’ve been reading a piece of writing by Colm Toibin titled “The Paradoxical Pope”. From the title Toibin could have been writing about Pope Benedict XVI however he was writing about his predecessor. The article is nuanced and fair, to my way of thinking. Toibin begins the article with a reference to the College of Cardinals, the place of Cardinal Pell. He describes stony faces, dignified bearing and the richness of their robes and ponders if there is a Gorbachev in the shadows slouching towards Rome to be born. The article was written for The New Yorker in 1995.

Pam | 30 January 2023  

This is a well balanced article about Cardinal George Pell and Pope Benedict.

However, like Francis Armstrong, Lawrence Maloney and Margaret, I feel that this topic needs far more rigorous analysis - especially in the area of social justice or as Christians would say the social Gospel.

After all, in describing its philosophical basis, Eureka Street says:

“As a publication of the Australian Jesuits, Eureka Street is informed by the values of Jesuit spirituality and in particular the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. It sits comfortably in the tradition of Catholic publishing for a public audience epitomised by Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker.”

Dorothy Day was a Catholic Marxist and the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement was very supportive of Liberation Theology, peace, human rights and social justice. In 1970, I heard Dorothy Day speak with Jim Cairns in a packed Sydney Town Hall. It was a great experience to hear her speak about her activism in many areas.

I am not a Catholic, but it has been a privilege for me to work with Catholics who have been inspired by these values in the peace, social justice, human rights and environmental movements. Many of these people are a great inspiration to others because of the work they do to bring about a fairer world – something that the founder of Christianity frequently urged in his teachings.

Both Cardinal Pell and Pope Benedict were extremely conservative on social issues although Benedict did differ with Pell in that he did refer to social justice and took steps through his Laudato Si to lay the framework for Vatican policy on the environment and global warming.

And according to a Laudato Si Movement 31,12,2022, Pope Benedict XVI did the world a service by frequently speaking out against destruction to the environment and building on the Catholic Church’s history of caring for creation.
“He started the ball rolling in terms of the Vatican getting interested in the environment and global warming, especially,” said Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, and columnist for the Religion News Service. “And people did pay attention.”

Remembering Pope Benedict, ‘The Green Pope’ - Laudato Si' Movement (laudatosimovement.org)

George Pell of course lent much of his energy to the climate denier movement and backed wholeheartedly the negligent and irresponsible polices on the environment adopted by LNP governments between 2007 to 2022.

It is to be hoped that future church and other community leaders confront the many environmental and social challenges that humankind faces.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 01 February 2023  
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It was Pope Francis who wrote Laudato si not Pope Benedict

Introna Bernadette | 04 March 2023  

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