Within a few minutes of meeting Cardinal Pell at the Travellers Club in Pall Mall, he makes a revealing comment about the proposed title of his upcoming Thomas More lecture in Oxford – the reason he was in England for a week in November. The lecture – which packed out the Oxford University Chaplaincy – at the Newman Society (he gave its inaugural lecture many years ago) was to have been called “The Suffering Church in a Post-Christian Society”. But Pell tells me he is dropping the phrase “Post-Christian”. The new title became “The Suffering Church in a Suffering World”.
By the end of an hour or so with the thoughtful and charismatic Pell – there is something refreshingly Victorian, Cardinal Manning-like, about his larger-than-life spiritual and physical presence – I began to understand why. Pell
simply doesn’t believe in the secular concept of post-Christianity.
Pell is certainly a fighter and his personal and cultural battles are with the long night of the Western Christian soul in our troubled modern times when the “sea of faith” seems to be in
retreat in a confused (or “wrong”, to use Pell’s word) culture.
In 2019 he was unjustly incarcerated – spending over 400 days in solitary confinement – in a Melbourne jail cell for alleged criminal actions he could not have committed, according to the testimonials of 20 witnesses. After receiving over 4,000 letters from supporters – many of them English – he was unanimously acquitted by the Supreme Court (7-0) in one of the most dramatic judicial over-rulings in Australian history. He now lives between his apartment in Rome and a house in Sydney.
He is much taller than any priest I have ever met. And he is a man of refreshingly absolute moral clarity. When I bring up how New Zealand’s bishops have just announced that they will allow priests to give the last rites to those wishing to help kill themselves through euthanasia, Pell shakes his head: “We can’t have one set of commandments in New Zealand and everybody else singing to a different sheet.”
Admitting his own preference is for the new rite, or the Ordinary Form, rather than the Extraordinary Form, he refuses to wade into the debate over the latest Vatican restrictions over Latin Mass other than to say Cardinal Nichols is right to keep the matter low-key. “For those people whose piety is helped by the Mass in this form, well, God bless them,” he says. He remains very friendly with Cardinal Nichols; they had concelebrated Mass only the day before.
In prison, he watched England play Australia at cricket along with reading the Bible and Thomas More. He was also sustained by reading books including The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh. He also enjoyed watching Songs of Praise on television. He was unable to celebrate Mass for all of his 400-plus days, with the closest he came to traditional carols at Christmas being a Vietnamese choir that had gathered outside the prison walls on Christmas Day – but alas, he didn’t hear them.
His friend George Weigel has likened the judicial farce of the High Court to the Dreyfus trail of 19th-century France, only this time it was the Catholic Church on trial. Did the experience of being incarcerated deepen his faith? “I’ve said to a number of friends, with my tongue in cheek, I don’t see any improvement as a result of my time served, but I think its reasonable to say my faith was strengthened.”
Despite his high profile, he sees himself as a typical “up and down the wicket sort of Catholic. I don’t invent any teachings, I follow the doctrines of the church and try very hard not to push the more difficult ones away.” His commitment as a “baptised Catholic, priest, bishop or cardinal” is to be true to what the Catholic Church stands for.
That’s not the same as saying he supports the status quo, especially within the Vatican where he instigated much-needed reforms after being appointed in 2014 by Pope Francis to oversee the finances of the Holy See. I ask if he thought his arrest in Australia in June 2017 had anything to with what he had begun to unravel with the Vatican finances – including the diversion of Peter’s Pence into speculative investments, notably including the controversial £300 million ploughed into a former Harrods warehouse in Sloane Avenue, Chelsea which lost the Vatican over £100 million. These investments, including part-financing the Elton John biopic Rocketman, were overseen by Cardinal Becciu (now on trial in Rome). Pell says that if the Vatican had listened to his warnings – and, crucially, been given access to the finances of the Secretariat of State – it could have saved itself a considerable sum.
Pell says he had been aware that Peter’s Pence was sometimes used “to help with the administrative expenses of the Holy Father” – a polite way of saying it was used to subsidise Vatican and papal expenses. “But in those days nobody ever mentioned that Peter’s Pence would be used for investment.” He thinks there is nothing wrong with prudent investment in property and other investments for the Vatican, not least because – as a
result of corruption and years of poor financial management – “the Vatican is seriously short of money”.
Does he have any sympathy for Cardinal Becciu? “He has many questions to answer but everyone has the right to due process,” says Pell, clearly not wanting to be drawn. “No legal system is infallible. The reputation of the Vatican as a law-abiding society is very important for the Church.”
In his own case, his two volumes of prison diaries are an eloquent testament to how a resolute Christian can deal with a reversal of fortune that seems incredible considering the lack of evidence (just one accuser, without evidence). As was proven at appeal, a bustling sacristy after a major Sunday Mass at a Melbourne cathedral is not a place where there is any possibility to abuse someone. What kept Pell stoical about his miscarriage of justice was his faith.
“What I would not have said so emphatically that I am prepared to say now is that the crucifix works, that the basic Christian teachings are coherent and immensely consoling if you’re in trouble. The only way forward for the Church is to hang onto these teachings. The idea that you can gain a bit of ground in this secular society by adopting a good part of their message – that is absolutely counterproductive, in sociological terms, as well as being contrary to the apostolic tradition under which we stand.”
He takes a similar trenchant view when I bring up the subject of the German Synodal Path, started in 2019 as a way of promoting reforms in light of the sex abuse crisis. Critics think the German bishops are operating as a loose Catholic federation, rather than a united Church under one pope, voting for their own progressive laws on same-sex marriage and female ordination. Some think it could lead to a break from Rome. Does Pell agree?
“The Germans are not going to break from the Church as they wouldn’t get the Catholic Church taxes,” he says. “The Germans have to decide: do they stand under the apostolic tradition, or are they asserting they are masters of the apostolic tradition and can change it?’
From reading his prison diaries, it is clear that he repeatedly returned to the idea of forgiveness being at the heart of Christian life. In prison he prayed for those who convicted him, as well as other prisoners.
“Not just forgiveness,” he corrects me. “Obviously that’s crucial. But God’s providence, [the idea] that God is in charge, that God is good, is interested in us – that suffering can be redemptive. We believe we are redeemed by Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross. The major point of difference between us and those without religion is our attitude to suffering.”
Indeed, this is the major theme of his Newman lecture: the decline and fall of faith. Matthew Arnold’s only book that remains in print is Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Pell seizes on this theme in his lecture. He uses Waugh’s reason for converting in 1930 – faced with a choice between “Christianity or chaos”, he chooses the former as society disintegrates.
Pell used to prefer Graham Greene to Waugh but has changed his mind and was pleased that he was to be shown around the Wallace Collection by a member of the Waugh family.
Today, it is not so much science that is the enemy of faith but the rise of secularism as a new religion, especially on American campuses, a point Pell makes in his lecture when he deplores how Harvard University has appointed an atheist as Harvard chaplain. In his lecture, he recommends a “marvellously titled” book by American writer Mary Eberstadt called Adam and Eve After the Pill. It ex-plains how the contraceptive pill has created a social and moral revolution.
This was Pell’s first time back in Britain – where he took a PhD at Oxford and has many friends including Father Alexander Sherbrooke at Soho Square – since his release from prison. He visited the church at New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire to celebrate Mass, staying with a Knight of Justice of the Order of Malta. One reason he has been so enjoying his week in Britain is that he admits to being a strong supporter of Brexit. “I am very pleased to be back in a liberated London.”
Pell is also concelebrating a Mass with the Personal Ordinariate in Oxford. The Ordinariate was founded by his friend Pope Benedict XVI, and he is “very sympathetic towards it”.
We move to the euthanasia bill now before New South Wales courts as well as in the UK. Does he worry about certain church leaders accepting euthanasia – as well as blessing same-sex couples – and does he think this is erroneous? “Completely,” he says.
I ask if the Eucharist is only for people in a state of grace or if it is for everyone?
“St Paul warned against those who receive the body of Christ unworthily,” replies Pell. ‘The Eucharist is certainly there for those believers, those who believe in the Real Presence and not for those whose personal life is in a state of serious moral disorder.”
So what of the succession of pro-choice Democrat politicians, including Nancy Pelosi and President Biden, lining up to get a blessing from the pope?
The Cardinal smiles. He won’t be drawn. “It’s always good to have pilgrims to the Vatican,” he replies.
Is it dangerous for the pope to indicate that it’s morally acceptable for a US president to be pro-choice but also to keep receiving Holy Communion?
“Well, we don’t know what was said at their meeting. [Biden] might have repented.”
What is your view, I press the Cardinal, of politicians who actively support abortion laws? His words are chosen carefully. “I find it a bit difficult that they would want to go to Communion.”
And what of his horrendous ordeal in jail for over a year? “It wasn’t horrendous,” he says. “It was thoroughly unpleasant.”
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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