Religion, Right or Left?

The sectarians of yesteryear must have been spinning in their graves last October when the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, officially launched a supportive biography of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Dr George Pell. Even more extraordinarily, the former is of the low church, anti-Rome and altar-stripping, Sydney Anglican tradition, not of the High Anglican tradition whose vestments and rites are often very close to those of the traditional Catholic Church. In effect this was evidence of the increasing realisation on both sides that they have more in common than just outward symbols  as traditionalists who believe in the central doctrines of their churches, and in a moral law which is above fashion and relativism, they are subject to a degree of public obloquy and media attack which is tantamount to persecution. The new intolerance demands that Christian churches (Muslims are apparently exempt) should neither teach nor practise anything which is not in accord with the progressive consensus. Notions of doctrine and the sacred are as nothing compared to this fashion.

Pell has suffered most in recent times. His name has been dragged through the mud on the unsubstantiated word of an unnamed complainant, and that complainant continues to enjoy the privilege of anonymity even though an independent inquiry did not believe his version of events alleged to have taken place forty years ago. It is clear from the detailed account of the matter in Brisbane Courier Mail journalist Tess Livingstone's biography of Pell* that his powerful enemies in the pornography business and some elements of the homosexual community, along with many who nominally remain in his own church, are determined to destroy his reputation and his moral authority.

The details of Pell's life in this book before his elevation to the archiepiscopal throne of Melbourne amount to an illuminating account of the struggle between the progressive and the traditional elements in the Catholic church over the years since Vatican II initiated a neo-Reformation which unintentionally nearly destroyed the church, for good or bad. Stripping of the altars and destruction of images have recurred. But the original Reformation did not set out to destroy traditional morals or the family. The neo-Reformation eventually did. The Reformation elements of post-Vatican II developments in the church are starkly apparent in the chapter of the book describing his time as seminary director, when he aroused furious opposition merely by instructing the would be priests to attend Mass regularly and show other outwards signs of commitment to their religion.

One can only wonder what priestlings who neglect the observance of the religion into which they propose to be ordained think they are doing. It would probably be better toss them out in the beginning rather than wait for them to leave the priesthood and waste the years of education and sustenance expended on them. If at this stage there is no genuine dedication it is hardly likely to develop later. What could be the motives of those who aim for ordination without any clear commitment to their own religion? Some, no doubt, would be homosexuals, active or inactive, attracted to an all-male community. Some might be convinced like many of those who were teaching them, and resisted Pell, that the neo-Reformation was already complete, and the Catholic church was about unguided and uninstructed individual conscience. Very few would be consciously setting out to undermine the religion, and yet this is what they did.

The Reformation element is also clear in the descriptions of how chapels were changed and "simplified" so as to diminish the visible evidences of ritual (and mariolatry)  it is as if the more extreme followers of Dr Jensen were infiltrating the priesthood of the Catholic Church in order to subvert its doctrines and rites to accord with low-church principles. But protestants like Jensen who are sincere in their beliefs do not, of course, indulge in such tactics. The homosexual element is perhaps the most worrying, not because homosexuality in itself is objectionable but because of the now common presumption that homosexuals have the right to colonise and turn to their own purposes any institution or religion which in the first place is morally opposed to the practice (if not the fact) of homosexuality. Clearly the greater part of the teaching staff of this seminary seemed to have believed that they were perfectly in the right in destroying virtually all the vestiges of the church as it was before Vatican II. Whatever the need for reform of the church in 1962 (and who can argue, especially in the light of the sexual scandals which still threaten to destroy it, that there was no need for reform?) the furious protestantisation which ensued does not seem to have been the intention of the Council, let alone the movement for feminisation and homosexualisation in the name of "progressivism". The general use of the term "progressive" clearly demonstrates that what was going on was a politicization of the church according to the fashions of the sixties.

Paradoxically this same process of politicisation has occurred within the framework of the "high church" traditions which are shared in part with the Anglican church. The progressives are both roundheads and cavaliers, sharing only their commitment to the sixties fashions. Even the pre-Vatican II Latin mass supporters are often to be found in the games of bells, smells and frocks as well as, if not overt nevertheless committed, homosexuality. As Dr Pell has often emphasised his religion does accept practising homosexuals provided they make  serious efforts to abstain and sometimes fail honestly. It is true, however, that even some of those who might be described as traditionalists and are certainly not altar-strippers are not averse to overtly homosexual behaviour. Like the "Spice Girls" of Melbourne. Amongst this group there are genuine conservatives (even reactionaries) in the political sense who while declaring their adherence to the traditional doctrines and rites of their church are deeply cynical, and are prepared to use their politics and religion as a cloak for what by their own official standards are highly immoral activities. These are allies which Pell would surely prefer not to have  and of course they are easy targets for his enemies.

To someone who understands Christianity and the teachings of the Catholic church, whether a believer or not, it is perfectly understandable that Pell and others should refuse the sacrament of Communion to those who declare themselves (by means of a Rainbow sash or whatever) in a state of sin  it would be shocking to do otherwise. This is not intolerance, since the practice is to accept that a person who makes no declaration is acting in good faith. It is intolerance for a person making such a declaration to demand that a priest in effect commit sacrilege. But this does not suit the modern Inquisition of the progressives  only an auto da fe is acceptable to them. Punishment is administered not by burning at the stake but by ridicule and contempt in the media.

Livingstone's book is an interesting account of the rise to power and influence within the church of a strong and scholarly man in the modern age. This is a type, deeply religious and yet practical, scholarly and yet a successful administrator, which is rare even in the traditional churches these days. (In earlier Australian Catholic history one might think of Archbishop Eris O'Brien, both scholar and administrator.) Pell is a churchman who has learned from the 20th century that churches may not challenge democratic governments even though they may attempt to influence them. In an age of superficial atheism he has turned not to a debasement of his doctrines or beliefs, but their defence. What is puzzling is why the reassertion of a traditional religion should arouse such hostility and denigration. Again, politicisation is part of the answer.

Livingstone's biography is not a critical one, since she shares Pell's beliefs and has not gone trawling for allegations intended to discredit him  if indeed there are any such substantiatable allegations. She does not "interrogate" (to use the post-modern jargon) his sex life, if any. Of course a healthy man must have difficulties with celibacy, but he is not obliged to discuss them with anyone. To impute the worst is not biography, critical or otherwise. To suggest that a man in Pell's position should even discuss such matters is mere impertinence. Indeed, the only possible response to prurient questions is "mind your own business". If it should become evident in the future that there were some aspects of his private life which were discreditable it would be relevant to discuss them in the light of his preaching. But baseless allegations or innuendo in the meantime contribute absolutely nothing. The likelihood that Pell should have been guilty of any kind of sexual abuse of young boys in his past is on the evidence and allegations so far presented so close to zero as to be not worth considering. (There is one mildly discreditable episode of Pell's younger days aired in the book  a brief infatuation with the pseudo-scientific mystical nonsense of the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. Livingstone seems to think that this rubbish is praiseworthy.)

On the more general issue of celibacy of the Catholic priesthood there is a real argument to be made. Certainly some men who might make good priests cannot in honesty undertake a vow of celibacy, and so are lost. The argument in favour of celibacy (which is not quite the same as chastity) is really a practical one about the relative commitments of a married man to his family and to the church and the faithful. However, as the record of the papacy in Italy in the times of the Medicis shows family may well be involved in corruption of the church even under an official rule of celibacy. Nor is there any absence of child sexual abusers when married clergy are involved, as in the Anglican and other Christian denominations. Marriage in itself is no cure. Pedophilia has been tolerated far too much in all churches; although it has nothing to do with homosexuality in general, the opportunities and access offered to pedophiles by the churches are far too great to allow a relaxed attitude to any behaviour which might be conducive to it. And scandalous behaviour is just as prevalent among church traditionalists as anywhere else, perhaps sometimes more common.

The political aspects of both the demands of homosexual activists and those of the feminists who demand female ordination are quite clear, although less clear is their determination to subvert and take over the institutions of the churches. Outsiders can be quite indifferent to the issue of women priests, while understanding why the churches, and in particular the Catholic church, should wish to retain their traditional teaching on these subjects. By all means let those women and the men who agree with them on the need for female priests start their own churches and ordain their own  they are perfectly free to do so. What is mysterious is their obsession with owning the original institutions  the value of organisational structures and real estate might partially explain this. Again, it is in the spirit of the Reformation which was not so much about reforming the Catholic Church as the destruction of its traditions and the seizure of its lands and other assets.

Even so there is so much hatred and intolerance in the attacks on traditional Catholicism (and on traditional Anglicanism, especially the low church tradition) that mere greed and envy cannot explain them.  There are many former Christians who have left their religions, rejecting belief in a supreme being and doctrines in which they were brought up, and who have a pretty low opinion of the histories of those churches, without having become obsessed with destroying them as human institutions. But militant atheism is more understandable than the militant destructiveness of those who think or claim that they have remained in their churches but who cannot refrain from attacking their traditions and beliefs. What emotional needs are they trying to gratify? The common thread is the political fashions of the sixties  for these people it is a matter of progressivism in politics rather than religion. Extremist feminists (better referred to as wimminists, since there is a rational strain of feminism) will allow no institution to reject their politics regardless of its traditions and beliefs. The stripping of the altars is really an issue only in the Catholic Church, since the defenders of tradition and doctrine are the real targets; equally the low church Anglicans are attacked since they adhere to traditions and doctrines which do not suit the politics and dogmas of the wimminists. It is a war of conquest.

Oddly enough one of the errors which Pell might have made in his career from the point of view of his false allies of the "Spice Girl" variety, and of the Ultramontane tradition, is his genuine commitment to democracy. The old religious authoritarian tradition is not quite dead and persists in advancing an anti-democratic agenda in which the Church is perceived as a conspiracy to impose its will, and its dogmas, on the state and the law. The discreditable campaigns against therapeutic abortion or the use of embryonic stem cells in which the aim is to deny these not just to Catholics (who are entitled to reject both abortion and the benefits of stem cell-derived therapies) but even to those who do not subscribe to the dogmas and beliefs of the traditionalists is part of this. While there are genuine moral concerns involved in both issues, these have to be worked out in a democratic context, not one of religious dogma. Despite the desperate attacks on him by the progressivists, Pell in fact is on the side of democracy. This is still not true of all his church, either here or in Rome.

Where George Pell will go, and how high, in his church remains to be seen. But the politics of those who would destroy him are fascinating. So too are those of his church which, beliefs aside, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting of all human institutions. Perhaps what his enemies fear most is that he might contribute to its survival  certainly the gradual rise in vocations to the traditional, celibate priesthood in seminaries where Catholicism proper is taught, and its return to the nominally Catholic schools where it has been virtually abandoned since the neo-Reformation, suggests that the church might yet survive a few hundred years more.

Padraic McGuinness . Quadrant  editorial. December 2002

*George Pell by Tess Livingstone (Duffy & Snellgrove)

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