George Pell – ‘a challenge to the dominant consensuS’

George Weigel is an internationally known American author, political analyst, and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is a highly regarded speaker. He wrote the foreword to Tess Livingstone’s book GEORGE PELL published in 2002. Weigel pays generous tribute to George Pell’s qualities as a Catholic bishop. He already notes the vicious incomprehensible slander that the newly appointed Archbishop of Sydney received. Much of that slander has become the accepted ‘truth’ about Pell.

FOREWORD to GEORGE PELL by Tess Livingstone
Duffy & Snelgrove, Sydney 2002

Dr George Pell’s appointment as Archbishop of Sydney was a major news story across Australia — one that I could follow in real-time in Washington, DC, thanks to the Internet. Having been Down Under just five months before Dr Pell’s March 2001 transfer from Melbourne, I thought I knew at least something about the robust give-and-take of Aussie journalism. But it was difficult to recognize the George Pell I had known for almost 35 years in many of the reports I read on his appointment to Sydney.

According to one feature story, a ‘key’ to understanding Dr Pell is his ‘love of Church trappings … Back home in Melbourne, it is said, his vestments line his hall: gorgeous and theatrical’. I don’t know who was saying these things, but they obviously hadn’t stayed in Dr Pell’s home in Melbourne, as I had just done. There was nary a vestment on display in the halls, or anywhere else for that matter.

What I did see were books – books in profusion. The hallways were filled with packed bookcases. The space behind Archbishop Pell’s desk in his study overflowed with new titles in history, philosophy, theology, political theory, social and medical ethics. His sitting room held a year’s worth of the back issues of the major opinion journals in the English-speaking world.

There are very few Catholic bishops anywhere who are, in fact, less interested in ‘Church trappings’ than George Pell, whose sartorial style and self-presentation say ‘footballer’ rather more than ‘metropolitan archbishop’. By the same token, there are few who are so intellectually engaged or who read as widely. Inside and outside the Catholic Church today, bishops are usually thought of as managers. Throughout his fifteen years as a bishop, George Pell has lived an earlier model: the bishop as intellectual leader, the model pioneered by such giant figures of Western civilization as Ambrose and Augustine.

The press accounts of Dr Pell’s Sydney appointment were also replete with charges that Pell is an authoritarian who enjoys imposing his judgments on others; the charges have continued ever since. It’s an indictment that misses both the nature of episcopal leadership in the Catholic Church and the personality of George Pell.

The Catholic Church is not simply a voluntary association dedicated to humanitarian causes. It is a community of disciples who measure their fidelity according to an authoritative tradition, not according to their personal opinions. And that authoritative tradition, Catholics believe, binds and frees at the same time.

This is, admittedly, a difficult notion to grasp in cultures (like Australia’s) in which freedom has become largely synonymous with liberation from any ‘external’ authority. The Catholic Church, however, has a different understanding of freedom: like the nineteenth century English liberal, Lord Acton, the Catholic Church teaches that freedom is not a matter of doing what we like, but of having the right to do what we ought.

A Catholic bishop, teaching authoritatively, is speaking for the binding-and-liberating tradition of the Church. He is not imposing his personal opinions on the community. When Pope John Paul II teaches that using the natural cycles of fertility is the method of regulating births most consistent with human dignity, he is not teaching the personal moral opinions of Karol Wojtyla; he is proposing the settled teaching of the Catholic Church. Similarly, when Archbishop Pell teaches that homosexual acts are sinful, he is not imposing on others the personal crotchets of George Pell of Ballarat; he is teaching the moral truth that the Catholic Church has taught for two millennia. Bishops are servants, not masters, of the truth the Church carries in the world and proposes to the world. And bishops, if they are true to their episcopal ordination, must be faithful and courageous servants of the truth, even if fidelity involves personal risk — as George Pell has had ample reason to know that it sometimes does.

In understanding the Church’s authoritative tradition, of course, the bishop ought to consult broadly with knowledgeable people. Similarly, bishops in a media age ought to take counsel with experienced men and women who can help bishops propose Catholic teaching so that it can be ‘heard’ by others. And that brings us back to George Pell as a man.

During his years as Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Pell hosted a quarterly ‘think-tank’ of local intellectuals and activists in order to exchange ideas over dinner. I was fortunate enough to address one of these sessions in October 2000 and was struck by the diversity of the community of conversation in which George Pell lives. This is clearly not a man who likes his ideas or his intellectuals in one flavor. I was also impressed by the utter frankness of the debate, which Dr Pell clearly relished. An archbishop who takes copious notes of what others are saying (as I watched Pell do that night) is a man who understands that teachers must study and learn before they teach.

When I first met George Pell in 1967, I was struck by the freshness of his personality and by his lack of clericalism. Those same qualities are manifestly alive in him today. He combines the rugged good humour (and vocabulary) of a star athlete with the intellectual edge of an Oxford-trained historian and the piety of a convinced Christian disciple. He is at home with lay people and children in a way that is matched by few other senior Catholic prelates. He attracts deep loyalties, not because he demands obeisance, but because he is a magnet for friendships that he works hard to keep green.

That George Pell is a sign of contradiction in both the Catholic Church in Australia and in Australian society is obvious. But why? Dr Pell has become a lightning rod, it seems to me, not because he is the conniving, authoritarian heavy portrayed by some, but because he has ideas – ideas that challenge the dominant consensus among Australia’s intellectual and cultural tastemakers. And that, I suggest, is why the attacks on him over the years have had a particularly venomous personal character: as any debater knows, ad hominem arguments are the last refuge of people who have the sneaking, nervous-making suspicion that they’re about to lose an argument on the merits.

George Pell believes that there are truths embedded in the world and in us. He is convinced that we can know those truths and that in knowing them, we incur certain moral obligations. He believes that living according to those obligations is liberating, in the deepest sense of human freedom. Nowadays, these are all profoundly countercultural claims. Yet the idea that truths are built into the world and into us is one of the building blocks on which democracy was slowly constructed by the English-speaking peoples from Magna Carta on. The same idea undergirds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Australia is fortunate to have a religious leader who has such a clear-minded view of the moral and cultural foundations of democracy, and who is eager to make arguments in such a way that others can engage them. Sydney is lucky to have as its archbishop a man who is committed to the fullness of Catholic faith and truth and who can defend the Church’s settled teaching vigorously. If, in doing so, he challenges a few shibboleths, well, there’s a typically Australian formulation for that, too: good on him.

George Weigel
Washington, DC
September 2002