Compelled By Faith | An Interview with George Cardinal Pell
Compelled By Faith | An Interview with George Cardinal Pell
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.
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
Cardinal Pell: When I visited the U.S. last October , 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
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
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 Maritains 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
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
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
I was asked by an Islamic leader what I thought was the basis of Islams
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.
Interview with Tess Livingstone, author
of George Pell: Defender of the Faith Down Under.
of Sydney - Cardinal George Pell
There Only Secular Democracy?" - Cardinal George Pell
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