The Battle for God

Cardinal Pell on the Australian Church’s struggle against secularism

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney (CNS)

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 pray. 

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 Office.

Another significant development was—an 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 social networks.

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 Christians.

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 life—using rational argument, natural law, rather than appealing to the Scriptures.

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 capital.

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 euthanasia?

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 rules—if 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 them—to 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 cohesion.

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 marriage—I 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 us—this 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 markets—one for transient sexual relationships or one-night stands and another for child-rearing.

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 society.

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 people.”

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 cafeteria—picking 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-Catholic—say, writing for The Guardian or The Independent—you wear that anti-Catholicism or anti-Christianity as a badge of honor. Here in Australia, politicians who regularly espouse anti-Christian positions—whether on euthanasia, abortion, same-sex marriage, or funding for religious schools—won’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 people—especially 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 requirements—as 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 development—Benedict’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 topic—you 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 centuries.

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 on?

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 be completed?

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.

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About Michael Gilchrist 5 Articles
Michael Gilchrist is editor of the Australian religious monthly, AD2000, and author of several books on Australian Catholicism.