The following is a version of His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell’s remarks, delivered via video link to participants in the Global Foundation’s Rome Roundtable, which took place November 16th-17th. The Catholic Herald is very pleased to bring Cardinal Pell’s previously unpublished remarks, slightly revised for publication, to our readers. They appear for the first time here in their entirety. – Ed.
Rebuilding community trust is an enormous topic and a special challenge for the Catholic Church in many countries, for the Vatican, for some national hierarchies, particularly in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, where we have probably passed high tide, and with the financial scandals which unfortunately, might continue to offer rich pickings for adversaries of the Church and of conservative social values for some considerable period.
The McCarrick Report might be imperfect, but is an important step towards an appropriate transparency.
The senior English-speaking ‘Vaticanista’ John L. Allen was correct in his judgement that “the crucial historical point may be the fact that it happened at all”, rather than the report’s disturbing content. Allen’s wondering is misplaced, however, when it comes to his question whether anyone in the Vatican actually understands the magnitude of the precedent they have just set: Some of us clearly do, and many have been on the public record for years about the necessity and inevitability of financial transparency.
However, I am not going to speak about the particular challenges facing the Church. The topic is too big, we are too close to the action, and I am now in retirement dedicated to the quiet life.
My faith-based comments will address one set of changes especially as they are occurring in the Western World. Without in any sense denying or obscuring the formidable cultural and religious influence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the West, its principal characteristic since the advent of television and the pill is religious decline; a decline in the number and often the percentage of Church members and a decline in the participation rates of many of those who choose to remain.
Not unsurprisingly, there is often a reluctance to admit the extent of this problem and even more to discuss what is happening and what might be done to reverse the decline. However, when the process is far advanced as in Catholic Belgium and Holland, parts of France, or among liberal Protestant communities the forced closure and sale of many church buildings and the radical pastoral reorganization from the reduction in the number of parishes meant that these changes cannot be ignored.
Church leaders have to grapple regularly with the consequences of this decline for the communities themselves. In many places, vocations to the priesthood have declined — sometimes dramatically — e.g. in Ireland, which still has too many priests but almost no diocesan seminarians. (There are now more bishops in Ireland than seminarians in Maynooth). Many religious orders are passing out of existence, the presence of religious in schools and hospitals has almost ceased. Some predominantly lay forces e.g. Opus Dei, the NeoCatechumenal Way, and particularly in Italy the Sant’Egidio community and Communion and Liberation (Comunione e Liberazione) are significant players, while perhaps the most surprising development is the enthusiasm for the Old Rite / Tridentine Mass and the hundreds of seminarians, often from the USA and France, studying for the priesthood in Old Rite institutes.
My ambition is to venture a few thoughts about the consequences on the wider society, on public institutions and conventions, on public opinion in secular society, on social capital, on the constituents of what we call common sense from a waning of denominational Christian influence.
The fundamental constituent of Christianity is monotheism; a belief that the one true God is the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob and the Father of Jesus Christ. Also important is the belief that the Trinitarian unique God is the Creator God of the Universe, benign, rational and interested in us. That there exists only one God, is recognised by faith and reason. Western civilization until recently acknowledged its debts to both Athens and Jerusalem, just as it took many of its legislative and constitutive elements from the Roman Empire: from the rule of the Emperors, although the earlier Roman Republic has always provided inspiration for contemporary republicans.
The Judaeo-Christian God is not like a God who constructed a watch, wound it up and left it to its own devices. Nor does our concept of God envisage a Supreme Intelligence who is somehow responsible for the Big Bang which has continued to evolve following the beautiful and the simple laws of physics for about 14 billion years (perhaps), but is not interested in us on our tiny planet earth, with the only beings we know of capable of knowing and loving. Another dimension of the Judaeo-Christian teaching is even more disconcerting, because it sees the loving Creator God as a lawmaker and final judge to whom everyone will answer, no matter their level of knowledge about meaning and doubt, good and evil, purpose and chance.
The consequences of believing in the existence of this loving, demanding Creator God — who knows what He is doing — have been incorporated into all European legal systems since the legal code of Emperor Theodosius II and his co-emperor Valentinian III in 438AD, and continue to be important despite the French Revolution of 1789, the Communist Russian Revolution of 1917, and the European Union’s 2007 refusal even to mention the contribution of Christianity in its declaration marking the 50th anniversary of the bloc’s foundation.
Not many were or are able to spell out the contents of the Christian package even in my rudimentary categories, but many or most Europeans have lived and died at least for 1600 years believing that they had a divinely sanctioned set of moral requirements to follow, which also bound their rulers, and that their eternal happiness depended on their fidelity to these teachings.
If millions of people cease to so believe, it is not at all implausible that their personal standards of conduct and the content of the State’s laws will change, perhaps slowly, or erratically according to the new consensus.
A couple of basic clarifications might be useful.
I am not suggesting that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the only source of altruism in the Western World, much less across other civilisations. Nor am I requiring the source of altruism to be religious although it usually is. Civilisations have been built on the teachings of Buddha and Confucius, neither of them explicit theists, while the militant and expansionary monotheism of Islam, with its often Western-inspired terrorism and the Quran’s endorsement of violence, (not terrorism) is also a powerful source of altruism.
Trust in religious communities is often undermined by the claim that religion causes wars and that all religions are basically similar. Therefore, Islamic terrorism damages the standing of all religions. Wars have been fought for religious motives but religion has no monopoly over war because none of the worst tyrants of the twentieth century, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were religious people, and they were all atheists, except possibly Hitler who was bitterly anti-Catholic as well as being insanely anti-Semitic.
It has to be conceded that the legislative changes inspired by the culture wars and the secularists’ high-minded struggles against the deplorables have reflected and deepened changes in behaviour. Despite the easy availability of contraception and now the morning after pill, every Western country has tens of thousands of abortions (at different rates) and the birth rate everywhere below replacement level, continues to fall. After the introduction of no-fault divorce, the number of divorces soared to one in three marriages, although this has levelled in some countries because more men and women are not marrying when they cohabit. Homosexuality is no longer regarded as a disorder with the introduction of homosexual marriages, although heteronormativity continues to enjoy majority approval. Voluntary euthanasia is now being legalised in an increasing number of jurisdictions, so that de facto and de iure involuntary euthanasia will undoubtedly follow.
How many other changes might be on the way, unrecognised, unacknowledged and undesired?
The Universe is either designed by the Intelligence or is the product of chance; or it might be impossible to know. Is our own confidence in the power of reason reasonable or is it a misleading myth, perhaps a dead end, which means that the dialogue, discussion, and debate such as we are enjoying at the moment, are not only to be avoided but to be forbidden on some topics as useless, perhaps because offensive to people who feel under no imperative to justify their sensitivities?
If all human beings are not made in the image of God, if there is no commandment or encouragement to love all other humans, not least because there is so little in our DNA to distinguish us from other higher animals, where do we find the basis for universal human rights, much less for social justice for the disabled, the unproductive, those whose life no longer has a dignity worthy of life? Is concern for the common good a distraction or hypocritical? Why should all these unproductive humans have a vote? Democracies are often slow-moving and indecisive in times of crisis such as COVID (unlike China). In the thirties a good deal of enlightened opinion regarded democracies as old fashioned, which helps explain Churchill’s description of democracy as the least bad alternative for Government.
It is noteworthy that the English-speaking peoples retained much of the Judaeo-Christian framework for their public life, when powerful alternative visions ruled much of Europe and Asia. Class wars and the demonisation of the capitalists replaced universal love for Marxist Communists while the Nazis’ racial supremacy and the dehumanising of the Jews dominated in Hitler’s Germany. So too, the driving force and the ambitions behind the revolution in North America were different from those in 1789 France, when liberty, equality, and fraternity degenerated temporarily into the Terror, regicide, and the persecution of Catholics and aristocrats.
So there is an irony, a break with historical precedent in the fact that the ‘woke’ generation phenomenon began mainly in the English-speaking world. It is here above all that we find the demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings to alert those liable to be offended.
In this fractured world, which does not pay even lip service to the concept of truth and the role of reason, we have only a multiplicity of competing opinions: power plays to be enforced, opponents to be silenced—even at universities; identity politics, not universal fraternity and sorority; censorship imposed by the mob and social media. All this represents a regression to tribalism, which needs to be resisted by all those who value Western civilization; free speech, the rule of law, democratic procedures, a tolerance of diversity, religious freedom, the separation of powers. University authorities have been slow to resist, too ready to disinvite speakers out of fear of public protests. I hope this is not old-fashioned capitulation, but more of an understated long-term programme to protect reasoned discussion and debate, and to encourage a respect for learning.
These incidents represent a new low, an escalation or radical degradation of the culture wars, which have waxed and waned for decades now. I hope they are not a glimpse of the future as they are the antithesis of striving together for the global common good, especially when there are differences and tensions to be negotiated.
My thesis values the separation of Church and State, not least for the protection it offers to the practice of religion and the irreligious.
My self-appointed task is not to explain the benefits deriving from other religious traditions, but to point out the way Judaeo-Christian monotheism contributes to the cultural practices and understandings which enable our modern Western societies to thrive.
Christians need to demonstrate their integrity, by a basic transparency about their teachings and performance, so that they can continue to deepen community trust.
Despite the scandals and because of them Christians must continue to teach Christian virtues and Christian truths, to defend and exemplify the importance of reason, truth, universal rights, and forgiveness in our democracies, as well as the more typical and controversial areas of love and life, family and sexuality.
Christian leaders should continue to keep God in the public conversation, as often happens, rhetorically at least, in the United States, but rarely occurs in Australia, much less in New Zealand.
Prophets and philosophers from Moses through Plato to Machiavelli have regarded it as important to be included among the friends of God. I strongly believe it is more useful for a society to have some knowledge of what God wants than to be trying to control the climate. As Machiavelli asked in his book on The Art of War, “How can those who scorn God respect man?”
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