Tackling Issues Frankly

Archbishop George Pell

Archbishop of Melbourne, the largest diocese in Australia, he is one of the most dynamic and outspoken bishops among the recent generation appointed by Pope John Paul II. Once a professional Australian Rules football player, as a priest, he participated in the founding of Australian Catholic University. He writes voluminously for journals and newspapers, religious and secular, and speaks regularly on TV and radio. He is a well-known public speaker, who has lectured throughout Australia, the United States, England, and New Zealand. Archbishop Pell spoke recently with Register correspondent Raymond de Souza.

De Souza: How would you assess the recent Synod for Oceania? What did the Holy Father have in mind when he called these regional synods?

Archbishop Pell: The synods are practical examples of collegiality. One of the best aspects is that it brings the bishops of a certain area together, to think about what they should be doing, and to have a dialogue with the heads of the curia and with the Holy Father. So after this synod and our ad limina visit, we are better informed about the thinking at the center of the Church, and the curia and the Holy Father are better informed about our thinking.

The Holy Father undoubtedly sees these synods as a preparation of the Jubilee, and he would like us to come away with a new enthusiasm, new insights and new energy to preach the Gospel in the third millennium. The extent to which that has been achieved remains to be seen.

Cardinal Ratzinger said that the Catholic Church, especially her bishops and priests, is called to be the “salt of the earth” — not the sugar of the earth, not an artificial sweetener. We are there to teach the “hard” teachings as well as the “soft” teachings — we have no mandate to “improve” the Gospel. In the long run, there is no way forward pastorally in making Christ's essential teachings easier, whether it is on divorce and re-marriage, the limitations of legitimate sexual activity, or the need for repentance and penance.

Many observers were struck by the inclusion in the papal synod liturgies of various cultural rituals of the Samoan people. Did the Synod Fathers, who made a positive reference to this in their Final Message, see this as a positive sign, or perhaps even a model, of how to inculturate the Roman Rite among the small island nations of Oceania?

Yes, I think that's true, it was a beautiful example of that. It was very interesting and supremely encouraging to the peoples from Samoa and the other Pacific islands. But it had almost nothing to do with the real problems that are facing us in Australia.

Inculturation is a very, very difficult problem in Oceania. There are seven hundred languages plus hundreds of dialects in Papua New Guinea. I have a secondary school in Melbourne where there are children from a hundred different national backgrounds. But the overwhelmingly powerful force is Anglo-Saxon, agnostic, permissive advertising. That's the most powerful cultural force at work in our region that we have to confront and dialogue with — that's what is sapping our strength. That is the challenge of inculturation.

In the introductory speech at the synod, the relator asked the question, ‘Which way is the Church going to go?’ We are faced with two directions. We can conform to the world, especially in our moral teachings, but also in underplaying the necessity of faith. Or, as I would recommend, we can reaffirm the centrality, the urgency, the beauty, and sometimes the difficulty of Christ's teaching. Sometimes that creates a little tension within the Catholic Church. But there is absolutely no way forward for the Church in having the bland leading the bland. There is no pearl in the oyster unless first there is a bit of grit there.

There is no virtue in having Christians publicly fighting one another — we have had too much of that scandal in Northern Ireland. But there is no virtue either in a bland united front, papering over difficulties or differences. The really crucial issue is whether more people are living the faith more deeply.

A notable aspect of the synod was the juxtaposition of Australia — a prosperous Western nation — with the small island nations of the Pacific: Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, the Solomon Islands, etc. Did this bringing together of the Churches from those areas represent a reflection of what happens in Oceania now, or was it an exhortation for the wealthy Church of Australia to be more solicitous of its poorer brethren?

It works both ways. For example, most Catholics in Australia and New Zealand are not converts; they are born into Catholic families. A hundred years ago in most of Papua New Guinea and the islands there were almost no Catholics — so we have a lot to learn from the missionary expansion there; in some places they are still getting thousands of converts. They are deeply and profoundly aware of the beauty of Christ and his message. We seem less certain of that in Australia and New Zealand, and so we are less able to communicate our message to people outside the Church.

Another example is that we have few seminarians and quite a few well-trained priests and religious. Papua New Guinea and the islands have hundreds of seminarians and a critical absence of trained clergy and religious to educate them. I am certainly going to encourage our priests and religious to do more to help them with their lack of personnel.

This was a combined synod and ad limina visit for the Australian bishops. The Holy Father said to the Australian bishops: “Yours is the remarkable story of a great institution built quickly, despite limited resources. … Now perhaps it appears that the momentum has slackened. …” What is your assessment of the state of the Church in Australia?

In Australia, over 30 or 40 years, the percentage of people who identify themselves in the census as having no religion has gone from 2-3% to about 17-18%. We have had what I describe as the rise of the “RCs” — what I used to call “retired Catholics,” but one mother told me that they are not “retired,” they are “resting, relaxed, or reluctant Catholics.” They don't practice. Most young Catholics in Australia have not abandoned calling themselves Catholics, but they practice much less regularly than they used to. In many ways it is like an older form of Italian Catholicism — Christmas, Easter, big family occasions, times of trouble — rather than the old Irish-Australian way — a bit Puritanical, strong families, regular worship.

You said in your installation homily two years ago that those who said the Church in Australia was in crisis were “mistaken.”

I don't think we are in a crisis situation. It's not Holland, Switzerland, Austria, or French-speaking Canada. But we are certainly under pressure and there is a steady decline of practice — I have never denied those things. Some people would say that I draw too much attention to them.

I think the Statement of Conclusions issued by the Australian bishops and the heads of the curia after our meeting is one of the most important joint statements in the history of the Church in Australia. Archbishop (Leonard) Faulkner of Adelaide said that this five-day meeting was the most wonderful example of collegiality in his 30 years as a bishop. I am quite certain that if we can gradually and peaceably implement the vision of that joint statement it will strengthen the Church in Australia.

That joint statement was very frank. It spoke of a “crisis of faith,” doubts about whether the truth can be known, and a tolerance that “can lead to indifference.” These problems mark the whole of the Western world — is there anything in Australia which gives rise to particular concern or hope on this front?

We are a much less religious society than the United States, but also a much less anti-religious one. The problem in Australia is more indifferentism than hostility. There is a mild, unchallenged agnosticism. There is very little anti-clericalism, even after the pedophilia scandals. Yet 70% of Australians are still nominally Christian, so the Church has an opportunity to present the message of Christ to people who are looking for something with which to hold their lives together.

The joint statement specifically identified certain strands of feminism as leading to a crisis in both Christology and Christian anthropology. Why did the bishops choose to single out feminism for particular mention?

This is a significant problem within the Catholic community. The problem is not that we spoke about it honestly and sensibly but that other countries, where it may even be a greater threat, have not publicly faced up to this issue quite as frankly as we have. As a fairly frequent visitor to the United States, I would think that, in some circles in the United States, a radical, un-Christian feminism is a much greater problem than in Australia.

Your joint statement spoke of bishops as “signs of contradiction.” Can you speak of your personal experience of this, perhaps in regard to your own pastoral letter affirming Humanae Vitae last summer?

The statement emphasizes the role of the bishops because we have a strong following. We have 20% of Catholics who practice every Sunday, and perhaps 45% at Christmas. Many, though not all, people are willing to listen to what we have to say. Sometimes when there is a controversy, almost half the letters of support I get are from Protestants.

I put out a letter on the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. I did it for two reasons: to reaffirm the papal teaching and to draw public attention to the weakening, and weakened, state of the family. I was attacked, interestingly enough, by a number of prominent Anglican spokespersons, and also by a number of Catholics. But the largest newspaper in Melbourne gave great space to the ensuing controversy and editorialized that whatever you think about Archbishop Pell's views on artificial contraception, he is certainly right about the problems pressing on the family. Paul VI was prophetic when he said the advent of the pill would wreak havoc with the institution of marriage.

If you can provoke people to be thinking about what the Christian teachings are, that represents some kind of progress. And it reminds the young people in the schools and the universities that the Catholic Church has got something to say — a point of view, and a point of view that we believe helps human flourishing.

As part of the exercise of your teaching office, you are launching a complete overhaul of the catechetical program in Melbourne, a program directed by Msgr. Peter Elliott, whose liturgical books are well-known throughout the English-speaking world.

More that half of the Catholic children in Melbourne are in Catholic schools; there are 135,000 students in Catholic schools, which are supported by government money. My ambition, and I don't know to what extent we can realize it, is that (whether they come from practicing or non-practicing homes) when they leave school after 13 years they will have a good idea of the basic Catholic claims, and some clear idea of the argumentation for those claims. So I have said, perhaps a little provocatively, that I want them to know what they are drifting away from when they are young adults, because then they will be much better equipped to come back.

Surveys have told us that there is considerable ignorance of central Catholic claims and the argumentation for those claims. So many of the things that we took for granted in the past can no longer be taken for granted. We have to argue now for the existence of God and for the divinity of Christ. In sexual morality, the issue is no longer whether you are for or against artificial contraception and accept everything else, the moral challenge in marriage and family life is now right across the board.

You are planning, then, a catechesis that assumes nothing?

Yes, and please God, it will be systematic and comprehensive. But I don't suggest that it will solve everything. It's only one aspect. You need service, faithful witness, and community. But I do think that truth has a vitality of itself, and if these truths are presented accurately and adequately, in the long run it will make a difference.

In Melbourne, we previously did not have texts to put into the hands of the students. So we are now developing texts for the students, and the corresponding books for the teachers. We need to have a text that a majority of teachers are willing and able to use. There is no point in producing what we think is a great text if the teachers find it unusable. So the teachers are very much involved in the development and the trials. The texts will be a big help for the teachers too, who will not be forced to use any particular method of presentation. We will say that the content must be clear and orthodox and they can present that in the best way for the students that they are teaching.

Do you think this might serve as a model for other dioceses?

My responsibility is for Melbourne. If others wish to use our materials they will be welcome, but my responsibility is for Melbourne.

Why did you choose as your arch-episcopal motto: Be Not Afraid?

I chose it very explicitly — I realize that it has been used by the Holy Father, but that was not the main reason. A lot of very good practicing Catholics are fearful that the best days of the Church are behind them. A number of parents have children who do not practice — occasionally, all their children do not practice. They are frightened about the future of the faith. I wanted to remind them that there are an extraordinary number of times in the Gospels where Christ tells his apostles to “be not afraid.” I wanted to remind them that it is in the person and teachings of Christ, as they come to us in the Catholic tradition, that we have our vitality and our strength. In a certain sense, whether we prosper or fail is secondary to doing what Christ wants us to do. So that's the primary reason I said, “be not afraid.”

I also wanted to, slightly wickedly, assure the minority of people who do not share my views that what I will be trying to do is what Christ would do, and that if I don't stray too far from that, I will not do any damage at all.

—Raymond de Souza


Personal: Born in Balarat, New South Wales, June 8, 1941; attended Loreto Convent and St. Patrick's College, Ballarat. Studied for the priest-hood at Corpus Christi College and Werribee; ordained in Rome in 1966.

Education: Awarded licentiate in theology from Urban University, Rome, a master's degree in education from Monash University, and a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University. Fellow of the Australian College of Education; visiting scholar at Campion Hall, Oxford, in 1979 and at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge, in 1983.

Accomplishments: Principal of the Institute of Catholic Education from 1981-1984, taking part in amalgamating the institute into the newly formed Australian Catholic University in 1984. Rector of Corpus Christi College, the provincial seminary for Victoria and Tasmania, from 1985-1987. Auxiliary bishop of Melbourne from 1987; appointed as metropolitan archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II, July 16, 1996.