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Compelled By Faith | An Interview with George Cardinal Pell

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In recent decades a war has been waged within the Catholic Church between traditionalists and those who want to drain its teachings and institutions of much of their meaning. This is the story of that struggle, told through the life of a leading combatant, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, and the leading Churchman "down under", who has spent much of his adult life battling attempts to, in his words, "trivialize Jesus Christ."

George Pell, a brilliant student in Rome and Oxford, was chosen by Pope John Paul II to be Archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney. Pell's unprecedented double appointment reflects the fact that the Pope sees him as a vital front-line figure in the fight to reform the Church.

Cardinal Pell's life, thought, and work has been masterfully captured by journalist Tess Livingstone in the recently published George Pell: Defender of the Faith Down Under. An interview with Livingstone can be read here.

George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope and The Courage to be Catholic, states: "Pell has become a lightening rod, it seems to me, not because he is the conniving, authoritarian heavy portrayed by some, but because he has ideas that challenge the dominant consensus among Australia's intellectual and cultural tastemasters."

IgnatiusInsight.com recently spoke with Cardinal Pell about his ideas and his observations about the Catholic Church, the relationship between faith and politics, and the challenge of Islam.

Q: What do you think of the U.S. elections? How about the recent Australian elections?

Cardinal Pell: When I visited the U.S. last October [2004], just before the presidential election, I found the divisions there were as deep and bitter as they were here in Australia in 1975 after the Governor General dismissed Prime Minister Whitlam. I am not sure that this is healthy. In part this is a function of the electoral system in the USA, which pushes the parties apart. Voluntary voting also plays a role. The more deeply people feel, the more likely they are to vote!

In Australia voting is compulsory, which means parties do not face the problem of getting people out to polling booths. And because everyone votes, the parties have to moderate their claims and rhetoric. The system pushes candidates towards the middle, not away from it.

Apart from the electoral system, a major difference for the U.S. is the role played by religious believers in determining the result. The 2004 presidential election saw a stronger alliance than ever before between Protestant Christians of the "Bible belt" and beyond, and churchgoing Catholics. Australia does not have anything like a Bible belt, and although links between traditional Bible Christians and Catholics are growing they do not carry the sort of political significance such links have in the United States.

The Australian election was a bit unusual because religion played a small part in the campaign and one of the successful minor parties, Family First, is clearly inspired by Christianity.

One interesting fact to come out in the wash-up after the U.S. election was that the birth rate in the red states is 2.5, while in the blue states it is 1.5. This resonates with the observation in my talk about demography being on the side of a different sort of democracy to secular democracy.

Q: What strikes you as unique, interesting, or of concern in the Catholic Church in the U.S.? In Australia?

Cardinal Pell: Considering the Church and its dialogue with democracy, I think both in Australia and the U.S. there are important points in common in the challenges we face. While I personally do not favour church parties, and prefer serious Christians to work in all the major parties where they are welcome, it is not surprising that some Catholics should choose to work with other Christians to protect values and institutions which are under attack. They have every right to do so.

Catholics should co-operate together, and with others, in public life to promote prosperity and freedom, to work for social and educational justice, to protect life, marriage and family. How they do so is their democratic choice and the verdict remains with the voters.

A critical issue is to work to ensure that democracy remains friendly to the Western tradition, to Judeo-Christian values, and leaves space for them in the public discussion and decision making. A secularist democracy which is hostile to any religious influence in the public square will foster alienation. Certainly I am very keen that Christians of all denominations cooperate to muster a firm public defence of Christian values in the public square and present them for majority approval in our democracies. This is a vital work for the Church both in Australia and the U.S.

Q: What are your thoughts on those U.S. bishops who made statements about pro-abortion pols and Communion?

Cardinal Pell: Critics described the decision of these particular bishops as partisan interference, but I think this is unfair. As a priest and certainly as a bishop I have never endorsed any particular political party. However, I have commented on political issues such as the war in Iraq, the treatment of refugees, stem cell research and education. Every citizen has a right to speak publicly on any issue and sometimes a bishop has a moral duty to speak.

In the U.S. the pro-life struggle is more advanced than in Australia. Unfortunately the Democratic leadership seems to have turned its back on those who support life. This is a deep wound to the traditional Democratic Party constituency. Senator Kerry was pro-abortion, even voting for late-term abortions. He had explicitly excluded ever appointing a pro-life judge. Making all due allowance for the difference between private convictions and the positions one has to take as a public leader, the discrepancy here was just too great to square with claims of being at one with the Church on life.

I am sure it was difficult for the bishops concerned to take the stand they did. It was not a situation of their making, and it is obviously important to clarify just where the Church stands, especially when there is public confusion about this.

Q: You have said that "democracy is not a good in itself. Its value is instrumental and depends on the vision it serves." Can you explain that statement?

Cardinal Pell: There's no democracy pure and simple. Nearly every democracy is at the service of some set of values – even if you're going to say that it's a democracy which only accepts human rights. That presupposes a whole set of values about the freedom and equality of all people. We're inclined to take that for granted, but historically that has been a very controversial view.

In my talk, I made the case for "democratic personalism". This is a development of French philosopher Jacques Maritain’s concept of "personalist democracy", which has been consistently espoused by our present Holy Father, John Paul II. It was at the heart of the best of Christian Democrat initiatives after World War II. A man like Konrad Adenauer in West Germany could be accurately described as a democratic personalist.

It follows from the Christian concept of the human person that everyone is made in the image of God and that every human has rights, whether they are very young or very old, whether they are sick, whether they are contributing or whether they are dependent upon the help of others. The overwhelming priority is not the economy or miliary expansion but the well-being of individuals. In contrast with the Fascists or the Nazis, the individual is not subsumed in the collectivity or the nation or the race, nor in the interests of the working class as with the Communists. Human rights and human duties are very important and they are to be used cooperatively to build a genuine community.

Q: What wrong turns is secular democracy taking? How can it correct course in Europe, Australia, and the U.S.?

Cardinal Pell: One form of secular democracy ensures that there's room for all competing sets of values. There's another, more militantly secularist type of democracy which tries resolutely to exclude religious considerations from public life. It's that type that I'm opposing.

If you are a militant secularist in the way I was describing it, it's very difficult to agree on what are core human values. Some of these people – the British political philosopher John Gray, for instance – try to avoid the values question altogether. He moves in a Hobbesian direction, which says that the primary function of a society is to stop the members of that society from hurting or killing one another. Democracy is just a mechanism for the management of disputes about values, rather than about their resolution. People who think like that are more tempted to see the other people around them as strangers, as aliens. Consequently they are suspicious that they might be hurt and take steps to protect themselves.

People who are theist believe not only that God exists, but that he is interested in us and that he is good. They are imbued with a fundamental hope about the purpose of creation and are more inclined to trust one another. We theists are more inclined to be a little less angst-ridden about the ecological crisis, for instance. The evidence might be pointing to the degradation of many factors in our physical world, but even if that were true, we believe that God is good and that there is a life beyond this world.

As I mentioned earlier, if democracy means secularism, in its extreme form as I have defined it, then demography is against it. The statistics seem to show that those people who are religious have more children. I think it's connected with the fact that they are actually more hopeful and more optimistic. There is a clear correlation between secularism and few or no children and faith and religion and more children.

Q: You have said Islam may provide the same attraction in the twenty-first century as communism did during the twentieth century. Can you explain how you arrived at this thought? What are the positive alternatives?

Cardinal Pell: I wasn't suggesting for a minute that Islam and Communism were similar movements. Communism was explicitly atheistic and generally oppressive of all forms of religion. Islam is one of the great religions. Communism was a Johnny-come-lately and it has come and gone. Islam has been with us for 1400 years.

My paper was about the vacuum at the heart of secular society and the emptiness there. What I was saying was that just as Communism filled that in the twentieth century for a percentage of people, so might Islam – for good reasons and for less good reasons. For those who are radically discontented and inclined to violence, the terrorist cells of Islam might prove attractive. That will be a small percentage of people, we hope. But the strength and sense of purpose, community, cohesion, the fact that it is a very strong religion, could be attractive to many people in the West who are looking for a sense of purpose, looking for a sense of direction, something to hold their lives together, something to inspire a sense of self-discipline.

I was asked by an Islamic leader what I thought was the basis of Islam’s appeal. I said to him that Muslims have a clear simple message. The five fundamental principles are quite clear. They also have many people who believe quite strongly. I think that it is a religion of strength and it's probably more attractive to men rather than to women – although some women are converting to Islam also.

Related Links:

Interview with Tess Livingstone, author of George Pell: Defender of the Faith Down Under.
Archdiocese of Sydney - Cardinal George Pell
"Is There Only Secular Democracy?" - Cardinal George Pell

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