Unaccustomed as I am to find myself in easy agreement with Cardinal George Pell, I did approve of his response to David Marr’s essay. It was published in the same week that I was to conduct a Gleebooks conversation with David in Sydney, and I was intrigued as to how the essay’s subject would respond. Would he ignore David altogether? Would he forensically rebut all the accusations and the terrible timeline of clerical malfeasance and church neglect in Victoria? Would he try loftily to contextualise his decisions? As it turned out, he chose none of those options but did comment and land some blows, in my view. “Marr has no idea what motivates a believing Christian.” That last statement especially rang true for me. My final sense was that for all David’s writing’s usual elegance and flair, it came with plenty of baggage, only some of it declared. And it didn’t wrestle sufficiently with its own conclusion: that, above all, Pell simply could not contemplate a world without an operating Catholic Church. So yes, his best efforts would always, always be expended on its behalf, without apology, because he believed he was acting, by proxy, in the long-term interests of the wider society. I think this is a correct core judgment on the perplexing Pell, the man David ultimately found somewhat empty and hollow.
Okay, that is David’s verdict. But amid his impressive statistics about legalities, I wanted reference made to another set that is easily found: one that indicates the vast scope of Catholic activities in Australia – not as a sop for the sex abuse crisis, but to flesh out the central conundrum of this terrible story. This Catholic Church is a vital provider of services to the current fabric of Australian life. Seven hundred thousand schoolchildren are in the Catholic sector, served by 82,000 staff; sixty-six hospitals, including nineteen public hospitals, are run by church-related entities; the St Vincent de Paul Society is the largest and most extensive volunteer welfare network in the country, and the church is the largest welfare provider outside government. That is merely a snapshot of a vast network of engagement. Spelling some of this out could have only augmented David’s work. In fact, it may have highlighted the very confusion that plagues many of us, trying to imagine how this committed church restores itself beyond the shame.
I am not seeking to exonerate the hierarchy, who’ve clearly not observed proper duties of care and compassion. I have vented my spleen often on this over the years and, to some extent, am beyond my worst anger. In many ways I welcome a harsh secular light being shone on the innards of the institution, because I fervently hope it acknowledges that it can only thrive with the help of the secular world.
The truth is that for many Catholics, Pell is something of an enigma. After the Gleebooks event, I received a fascinating email from a man who asked not to be identified. He defined himself as “traditional” in both Catholic belief and practice, but like so many of his ilk, he said, he was extremely disappointed, even angered, by the actions, attitude and character of the current cardinal, George Pell. Though the cardinal was so often described as an ally of people like him, this writer felt that Pell, despite his character defects, had bullied and bluffed his way through life. But then came the real hammer-blow.
On Wednesday evening one elderly gentleman asked whether Cardinal Pell was a “closet atheist” (or something similar). David Marr replied by stating that he was certainly not an atheist. However, David did not understand what I perceive to be the subtext of that question, which I frankly think only a Catholic can get. The gentleman expressed the feeling, held by many of us, that the cardinal has no spiritual sensibility, no ability to express spiritual or (pure) human love in any fashion whatsoever. This feeling has caused me to wonder on many an occasion whether, with Cardinal Pell, we have our first “secular” archbishop of Sydney. So often his approaches to things seem entirely secular, wrapped occasionally, but certainly not always, in religious form.
Whoa! Well, neither I nor many of his greatest known critics within the church would probably go that far. So it is complicated, even for Catholics – let alone for lapsed high Anglicans, the faith that was David’s self-professed poison till university days. Pell is clearly a recognisable type of cleric from Australia’s history, in that he isn’t afraid of power or the wielding of it, which David acknowledged favourably … sort of. But there was surely more to wrestle with here. I felt David was excoriating Pell for not abandoning the church when he discovered the horrors. But could Germans abandon Germany, I asked him, once they fully grasped what their Fatherland had descended to during the war? Others have volunteered another analogy: should lawyers abandon the law on discovering some terrible abuse of it? David replied that his yardstick was how much Pell tried to change his beloved institution once he found out what had happened, how much he tried to really search for answers. And he had found the cardinal wanting. Fair enough. I couldn’t disagree on that precise need to re-imagine this vital institution for the wider good. That is the work at hand: a colossal reinvigoration of the church in Australia. I would love to see David tackle that in years to come.
Geraldine Doogue is a renowned journalist and broadcaster. She has hosted ABC TV’s Compass since 1998 and Radio National’s Saturday Extra since 2003.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY