While I knew that the late, unlamented George Pell was a conservative within the Catholic church, I didn’t realise that he was actively working against the current pope, Francis. An Italian journalist, Sandro Magister, has stated Pell is the author of an anonymous memo deeply critical of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Magister published the memo back in March 2022. “Disaster” and “catastrophe” are some of the words Pell used to describe the current pope’s reign. Pell, in lobbying for the next pope (who will replace Francis) stated that “The first tasks of the new pope will be to restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the ‘law’ [the Catholic version] and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition”. The memo touches upon most right-wing conservative Catholic concerns and is an attempt to lobby against the policies of the current pope. Basically, it seeks to replace Pope Francis with a pope who will wind back his reforms1.
Perhaps one of the most accurate portrayal of Pell’s attitudes is by Paul Collins, a former catholic clergyman and now author and commentator. He shows that Pell was an arch conservative who looked upon Francis’ ascension to the papacy, as mentioned above, as a disaster. This is because Pope Francis (and Collins) are the sort of Catholics who want to have ‘dialogue with the world’. Pell looked upon such people as ‘backsliders’. Decisions, especially moral decisions on gender and sexuality were black or white for Pell and for the traditionalist church he represented. For him, there was no grey area. The options were to obey the law, or commit mortal sin and risk damnation [snigger]. It is precisely this model of absolutist church that the current pope is trying to move beyond. For him the church is a place where people are cared for and not lectured to or judged2.
Collins’ analysis is echoed by Francis Sullivan, former CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, who opined that Pell’s style of leadership was authoritarian and uncompromising. It portrayed an absolutist and unflinching approach of the church to modern life. He was an ideological and cultural warrior within the church and resisted the accommodation with a liberal society and its tolerance for diversity. He goes further in stating that Pell’s attitudes were outdated. He noted that “most Catholics do not attend regular mass, nor do they subscribe to conventional Catholic sexual and social ethics. The public regard for and trust in the church has declined. The revelations of … clerical sexual abuse have accelerated the church’s decline to irrelevance in Australian society. Pell … has had to preside over a diminished church and, in many ways, his death symbolises the demise of a church out of touch and out of time”3. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Pell’s attitudes are part of the reason the church is in decline in Australia. His statement that “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people”, was made during a World Youth Day event in July 2002, in response to an American youth minister asking him how Catholics should respond to questions regarding the findings of systematic sexual abuse committed by church officials4.
The sacrifice of children’s wellbeing at the altar of clerical depravity so that the wealth of the church is protected is symptomatic of the slide into barbarity by those who look upon the world as a black and white place, as Pell did. Theirs is a small world filled with those who would inflict their brand of bigotry on all of us. And the religious wonder why religion is in decline around the world.