Cardinal Pell’s ‘own goal’


A Catholic friend of mine who spent his professional life as a journalist at what was the then rather WASPISH Melbourne Age told me in the 1980s that two sports dominated that paper’s pages – Australian Rules football and Catholic fights.

Cardinal George Pell should have stuck to playing Ozzie Rules. In that game, shirt fronting is the common tactic used to eliminate opponents.

It comes down to knocking out an opposing player usually with a side-on, full body smash that leaves the opponent flat on his back.

As a first ruck, Pell was so well known for this tactic that he aroused the interest of the scouts for the Richmond ALF club in suburban Melbourne.

They used to survey leading teams in Ballarat where, as first ruck for the Christian Brothers’ St Pat’s College, Pell made his mark.

Pell has never been any good at boxing – in the ring or with shadows. He always telegraphs his punches allowing his many critics and opponents to know the punch is coming and prepare their next moves.

He needs the surprise element he had in AFL. He so telegraphs his punches that when they arrive, they land with all the force of a wet sock.

His behavior at the Synod in Rome is yet another instance of failing to read the play and ending up giving his critics and opponents free kicks in abundance.

Never noted for his perceptiveness or his timing, this time he has excelled himself.

He led the composition of a letter signed by 13 or 14 participants in the current Synod in Rome – the number is unclear because five who were claimed to be signatories have denied they signed it – to be handed to the Pope before they Synod began.

Talk about missing the target and ahead of time too! The Pope has made it clear for over a year that the Synod is not convened to change doctrine.

Anyone who has done Theology 101 knows a Synod can’t do that. The Pope’s line in this as in many things is: guys, there’s a thing called reality; it hits us in the face every day; what is the right pastoral response?

There is and always has been a difference between a pastoral response to a reality and what the Church declares in abstraction which for those of an Anglo Saxon heritage apparently means legal fundamentalism: legal universals derived from abstract doctrines.

Cardinal Pell outlawed in both Sydney and Melbourne during his time there what is the resolution of these sorts of issues in the time honored way they have been for almost a millennium.

My parents did what wasn’t done

Ever since St. Thomas Aquinas proposed the best definition we have for conscience in the 13th. Century – the “internal forum” – it has been the common practice of the Church at an operational, pastoral level.

The internal forum is a person’s conscientious facing of their choices, dilemmas and failures before God, seeking of forgiveness for the failures by the remedy offered by the Church (Confession) and getting on with your life as it presents itself.

The pastoral response is what happens on the ground.

For example, my parents who were divorced when that just wasn’t done by Catholics – in 1968.

My mother proceeded with the divorce, as Catholics did in those days, “because the Parish Priest told me to.”

The elderly Irish PP could see what a destructive relationship it was between my parents and that the only solution was to break it up which my father wouldn’t do if the law of the land hadn’t intervened.

There was a relationship breakdown where I learnt that apportioning blame in intimate matters is an absurd application of the analytic mind and the best thing to say was “it didn’t work despite the best efforts of both” and that’s that.

I find comfort in the knowledge that many others have benefitted from such sensitive and intelligent pastoral care in the Church.

It is disappointing beyond words when I meet couples not blessed with such care and believe expulsion from the community is a deserved result for a failure the Church can’t forgive.

And as a priest, I’ve never come across a parish that doesn’t have divorcees (and gays for that matter) numbered among the most outstanding contributors to the life of the parish.

Back to Cardinal Pell

Cardinal Pell has never been noted for his intelligent approach to issues.

He’s demonstrated very visibly in his appearances before the Royal Commission into sex abuse that he’s short on compassion.

His approach to theology and scripture leaves those of us who know a bit about them simply gobsmacked for his virtual illiteracy beyond his capacity to recite catechism answers and the Ten Commandments.

But this time he has excelled himself.

He’s created a stir about something that isn’t on the agenda – doctrinal revision – and attacked something central to the pastoral life of the Church: mercy and compassion.

And immediately the letter to the Pope from him and his entourage became public through the agency of a crank in the Italian media and ally of Pell – Sandro Magister – the well known choir of Pell acolytes chimed in: Tess Lawrence in The Australian, Tracey Rowland at the Australian Catholic University, his allies at the London Catholic Herald and all the fanatics on the Catholic Right in the US (who used to quote the last two Popes endlessly to justify their extreme views as authorized by a Pope).

Cardinal Pell has form in this approach.

When he was among the Australian bishops at their ad Limina visit to Rome in 1998, he played the hierarchy card and convinced the then Pope and his Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, that the Australian Church was off the rails.

They were surprised at the end of their visit to be forced to sign a statement of conclusions that simply dismayed all but a few who were in on the deal.

A list of shortcomings and failures were listed and a set of remedies proposed to which all were to comply.

This document served as the Roman background for the dismissal of the bishop of Toowoomba, Bill Morris, a decade later.

That time he won with secrecy and surprise.

To shift codes – from ALF to soccer – this time all we do is to congratulate Cardinal Pell on a masterful own goal!

His cosignatories have abandoned him and the reactions of other bishops at the Synod have been anger and dismay.

  • Michael Kelly SJ is a Jesuit priest, journalist and the executive director of UCA News. First published in John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations. Republished with the author’s permission.
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