Cardinal George Pell of Sydney (CNS)
Cardinal George Pell has led the Archdiocese of Sydney for 10 years. He
spoke to CWR
about his tenure and the
state of the Church in Australia.
This year marks your 10th as archbishop
of Sydney since your move from Melbourne in 2001. Which positives, as far as
the Church is concerned, stand out for you from over that 10-year period?
Cardinal George Pell: I have been happy in Sydney,
which has treated me well. It’s a smaller and easier archdiocese to lead than
Melbourne, which is Australia’s largest.
Sometimes the more significant developments occur
beneath the radar. In this regard one of my more important gains was in the
reform of the seminary, ably led by Bishop Julian Porteous, one of Sydney’s
auxiliary bishops. This has not always been easy, as mistakes were made, but
there are good priests now in service and the seminarians have truly learnt to
Secondly, I would cite the reform of religious
education in the Catholic schools of the archdiocese through the introduction
of the Melbourne catechetical program To Know, Worship, and Love. It was
trialed, adapted in cooperation with Melbourne, and introduced effectively and
peacefully by Brother Kelvin Canavan and his team at the Catholic Education
Another significant development was xt3.coman
interactive website for younger people which now has 60,000 members. It arose
from World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney and is a content-driven Catholic social
network with the aim of sharing the richness of our faith and providing
authentic, genuine formation through its extensive resource library of videos,
podcasts, and articles. It is one of the world’s fastest growing Catholic
The introduction of the largely lay chaplaincy teams
at Sydney’s four large secular universities has likewise proved a boon. Since
this chaplaincy was established we have garnered nine seminarians and several
vocations to the convents. Thirty years ago we found a few Catholic
chaplaincies at North American secular universities. Today they are in many
places and often thriving.
Obviously the major event was the World Youth Day
2008, a great demonstration of faith and love. We prepared well in Sydney, with
600 young adult leaders trained and formed.
Speaking of World Youth Day, it will soon be three years since that
event took place in Sydney. Have you identified any beneficial “fall-out”
attributable to that event?
Cardinal Pell: The fruits of World Youth Day have been
seen far and wide, across and outside Australia. For example, the number of
seminarians in New Zealand doubled in the first year after the WYD, and doubled
again the following year. In Sydney, the biggest bounce has been in our
secondary [high] schools. Many old-timers would still be disappointed, but we
are hanging onto and strengthening a significant critical mass of senior
students. This was highlighted at one unusually strong Catholic school where
the numbers at daily Mass have doubled. A further major fruit has been a new
appreciation among non-Catholic Sydneysiders for Catholic youth.
In regard to the wider Australian community, what do you see as your
responsibilities, as a prominent religious figure?
Cardinal Pell: The major tension now is between
secularism and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Therefore it is more important
than ever to foster regular alliances with other Christians and especially Bible
Catholics and other Christians need to resist the push
by Greens and other like-minded people to expel religious figures and religious
arguments from public discussion. We need to battle for God as the basis of our
way of lifeusing rational argument, natural law, rather than appealing to the
On an issue such as euthanasia, I see my role as
continuing to repeat, “It is wrong to kill the old. It is wrong to kill the
sick.” As I am not up for re-election, I have a freedom denied to politicians.
So much of the energy today comes from people trying to extend personal
freedom. I’d like to see much more effort and discussion given to promoting
social cohesion, promoting the things that help keep society together.
Undoubtedly the most important institution in this regard is the family,
that is, a man and a woman and children. People right across the religious and
political spectrum are keen to preserve what might be described as our social
Hence the strengthening of the family, the maintenance of the family, is
absolutely crucial to maintaining our social capital. Here the signs are not
all good, as our society is being allowed to fray at the edges.
Despite your best efforts (and those of other church leaders), is
Christianity in Australia fighting a losing battle on the big moral issues,
given the legal acceptance of no-fault divorce, abortion, embryonic stem cell
therapy, gay adoption, and the continuing pushes for same-sex marriage and
Cardinal Pell: I don’t know whether we’re any weaker than we were. We
live in a democracy, and in a democracy the majority makes the rulesif you
lose it, so be it. You’re still there. We’ve said our piece, we’ve done what we
can, we go on to the next issue.
I see part of my job as trying to explain the consequences of our
positions and to argue for themto urge people not to just unreflectively go
with what a powerful minority group might be espousing, and to examine the
issues and see if it is conducive to harmony, to health, and to social
I don’t believe the euthanasia battle is lost. Once people understand
the concept of mercy killing, they will reject it, fearing Australia will
finish up like Holland, where a very significant percentage of people never
consent to being bumped off and will be bumped off.
As for same-sex marriageI avoid the word “gay,” because it’s a word
that has been colonized by one group and because homosexuals on the whole are
as miserable as the rest of usthis is really a second-order issue. Most
Australians believe in tolerance and the removal of discrimination, but would
stop there as far as redefining the family goes.
The real task is finding ways to strengthen traditional marriage, to
reduce divorce rates, which have begun climbing again, and to ensure more
children grow up with a mother and a father living under the same roof.
I am sympathetic to suggestions that the government should do more to
encourage more couples who plan on getting married to undertake pre-marriage
courses, which the Church provides to Catholics. We should be aware that
divorce comes at a great cost, nearly always for the spouses involved and, I’m
tempted to say, always for the children involved.
One of the reasons why young people, among others, can be frightened of
marriage today is because they’ve seen the unhappiness of their divorced
parents and they want to try to avoid that.
In regard to marriage and family, would you say that the passage of time
since 1968 has further vindicated Pope Paul VI’s restatement of Catholic
teaching in Humanae Vitae?
Cardinal Pell: Certainly. Recent research suggests that 50 years of the
contraceptive pill has changed the marriage market irrevocably by creating two
marketsone for transient sexual relationships or one-night stands and another
This has made it easier for men to delay commitment, has undermined
marriage, and has triggered a redistribution of wealth and power from women and
children to men.
This is reinforced by what many say is a new front in the sexual
revolution, the modern “hook-up” culture in which young people have expanded
the quaint concept of monogamous relationships to include “sex buddies and
late-night booty calls.”
This new sex paradigm is ultimately destructive to the Christian concept
of encouraging life-long relationships to produce children for the benefit of
One of the roles of people like myself and Christians and those who
believe in family life is to say to young people, “You’re encouraged to minutely
examine the Christian position, and sometimes you examine it minutely from a
hostile perspective. Be as discriminatory and as careful to examine the
alternative just as closely and see what works.”
I say to young people, “Look at the adults you admire who seem to be
happy and productive, then find out what principles are inspiring those
What is your view of those avowedly Catholic politicians who adopt
public stances in clear opposition to Church teaching on key moral issues like
abortion or same-sex marriage?
Cardinal Pell: Some politicians like to dine at the Catholic cafeteriapicking
and choosing Church teachings that suit their political views while claiming to
be defenders of the faith. While they fly under the Christian or “Captain Catholic”
flag, they blithely disregard Christian perspectives when they vote in Parliament
on moral issues.
If a person says, “Look, I’m not a Christian, I’ve a different set of
perspectives,” I disagree but I understand. If a person says to me, “Look, I’m
nominally a Christian but it sits lightly with me,” I understand that.
But it’s incongruous for people to be Captain Catholics one minute,
saying they’re as good a Catholic as the Pope, then to turn around an regularly
vote against the established Christian traditions.
In England, if you’re anti-Catholicsay, writing for The Guardian
or The Independentyou wear that anti-Catholicism or anti-Christianity
as a badge of honor. Here in Australia, politicians who regularly espouse
anti-Christian positionswhether on euthanasia, abortion, same-sex marriage, or
funding for religious schoolswon’t concede that they’re anti-Christian.
Catholic politicians can’t have it both ways on sensitive moral issues.
An event of major significance this year for Catholics in the parishes
will be the introduction of a revised translation of the Mass. What steps have
been taken to ensure the implementation of the changes will be smooth for both
priests and lay peopleespecially given the dissenting
views of a few clergy?
Cardinal Pell: The new missal translation will help
strengthen faith through its fuller doctrinal teaching and the beauty of its
language. It will help the call to worship and we will experience very little
resistance from lay people.
A long, detailed preparation will be unveiled as the
year progresses. The few dissidents will have to work very hard to maintain
opposition once the people hear and experience the translations.
Has any thought been given to a broader approach to the “reform of the
reform” opened up by the new translation, given the fairly widespread, loose
approach to the rubrics and the need for reverence at Mass? It seems that a
window of opportunity has been opened after 40 years to re-educate priests,
religious, and laity on the Church’s liturgical requirementsas distinct from “the spirit of Vatican II.”
Cardinal Pell: This is not the time for the reform of
the reform. It is enough that we continue along the lines of homogeneous
developmentBenedict’s hermeneutic of continuity, where the liturgy is seen,
first of all, as an act of worship, a call to prayer.
On a totally different topicyou are one
of the few Australian public figures to express skepticism about human
activities being the main driver of global warming and climate change. Have any
recent events affected your position one way or the other? How should the
Church handle the issue?
Cardinal Pell: There is no one Catholic line on
humanly induced global warming. I became suspicious when noisy partisans began
to denigrate their opponents, use scare tactics, and exaggerate the evidence
and the support for their evidence. I am open, but have not seen sufficient
evidence to show the present situation is outside established patterns over the
The “greatest moral challenge of our times,” to quote
former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has disappeared before our eyes! I
would be surprised if governments waste much money on it now. Computer
projections for the future are only as good as the inputs, and too many factors
influence the weather to enable us to predict even a month ahead, let alone
decades or centuries.
I enjoyed it when President Obama had to leave the
Copenhagen Conference on global warming a day early to avoid being snowed in.
While the familythe domestic Churchis
central to the future religious belief and practice of young Catholics, the
reality is that many families, for a variety of reasons, are unable or
unwilling to fulfill their obligations in this regard. The role of Catholic
schools is therefore especially important. However, despite the fact that
nearly half young Catholics attend Catholic schools in Australia, the vast
majority of students cease practicing once they graduate. What measures are
being taken to address this serious situation, for example, improved selection
of principals, teacher training, religion programs, parental education, and so
Cardinal Pell: Most youngsters in our schools are from
non-practicing Catholic families, while others stop worshiping before they
leave secondary school. But World Youth Day has helped the position of
Christians among youth and I see it as an important task to rally the Catholic
tribe, the “C&E” (Christmas and Easter) Catholics, as well as trying to fan
the flame of faith, sensitizing them more to God and his love.
In regard to our Catholic schools, many different
activities are needed even to keep them as religiously effective as they are. A
whole generation of leaders has retired or is approaching retirement. In Sydney
school morale is good, as are the academic results. We work hard at improving
literacy, numeracy, and religious knowledge, and closely follow the levels
achieved in year 12. We have introduced religious knowledge tests into junior
secondary (year 8), as well as at the primary level (year 6), which were
introduced in 1998.
The new religious education program mentioned earlier
is contributing, while the location of a Notre Dame University campus in
Sydney, well led by Professor Hayden Ramsay, has proved a blessing and helped
spark a religious revival at Australian Catholic University, which is ably led
by Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven. A creative tension between the university
campuses has been productive since monopolies can easily become complacent.
The in-service formation of teachers will become more
and more important, and I commend the Melbourne proposals in this area. In
addition, I hope Domus Australia, the new pilgrim center in Rome, will be the
venue for many courses for Catholic professionals in education, health care,
and welfare services.
You turn 70 this year. What would you most like to achieve in your
remaining years as archbishop of Sydney? What “unfinished business” remains to
Cardinal Pell: Firstly, I want to ensure that the seminary
continues soundly, and pray that seminarians continue to enter. Then I look
forward to seeing Domus Australia opened in Rome, as well as the completion of
the Benedict XVI Retreat Center for students and adults outside North Richmond
and the building of a Catholic center for the Sydney university chaplaincy.
Likewise I would wish to strengthen further the Catholic schools and to
maintain our outreach in government schools for weekly religious education with
our 1,800 volunteer catechists. This is a great work, but it is being challenged
by government courses in ethics.
I hope, too, as far as non-practicing Catholics are
concerned, that it proves feasible to adapt and run the American “Catholics
Come Home” program on our television and radio stations.
Finally, and most importantly, I will strive to
maintain the good morale of the Sydney priests and see that the new priests are
incorporated happily into the workforce of the archdiocese.