The last few weeks have seen the death of two of the world’s most senior Roman Catholics, one of them an Australian—Cardinal George Pell.
Unsurprisingly, the Australian media has been full of commentary about George Pell. He was undoubtedly an extraordinary and gifted man, but also a ‘polarizing figure’, as we’ve been reminded of repeatedly. Nearly all the articles or news reports about him have either been firmly for or against, and virtually none have sought to understand his life, beliefs and legacy from the viewpoint of evangelical Christianity.
We thought it was worth redressing that deficiency in this week’s edition. As evangelical Protestants, how should we respond to the life and death of such a prominent and controversial Roman Catholic? And when our friends make a comment, or ask us what we think of George Pell, what could we say that might lead to further conversation about the gospel?
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation Phillip and I had about this topic. (To listen to the full thing, just click on the podcast player above.)
What shall we say about George Pell?
TP: If someone asked you what you thought about George Pell, what would you say?
PJ: Well it’s difficult, for a start, to come up with a one-liner that captures everything. There are several issues to talk through, and I guess that’s what it would be good for us to do in this conversation.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that you should not speak ill of the dead. It's an old maxim, but it's a good one. When people have died, people feel like it's time to pass judgment because there's nothing more that person can do. The life has now started, been, and finished. But we're not God,and what we know about a person is tiny. I mean, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4 that he doesn't even judge himself, that on the last day God is going to bring out the motivations of the heart. And so when we consider a life like George Pell's, what do we know about it? How much do we really know?
I read a couple of articles from people who are very positive towards him, which showed me all kinds of things in his life that I really didn't know at all. He was a great defender of the underground church in China. He played a big part in writing the curriculum of Catholic schools and the teaching programs and producing books. He was the founder of two universities in Australia, the Catholic University and Notre Dame University—there's not many Australians who have founded one university, let alone two universities. He was the organizer of World Youth Day back in 2008 which somewhere between 300,000-500,000 people went to. I mean, the man did all kinds of things, yet the articles in the paper only refer to a couple of things that matter to them. I wouldn't want to be judged just on a couple of things in my lifetime. And we've got to be careful about judging a man on only a couple of things, just because those things are important to us.
I'm glad God is our judge, rather than public opinion.
TP: Most of the public opinion has gathered around two big issues, and it's hard to avoid them. One is the general response of the Roman Catholic Church to institutional child sexual abuse, and the second is George Pell’s own conviction, subsequently overturned, for child sexual abuse. How can we talk about those two big issues with respect to someone who has died?
PJ: First and foremost, with child sexual abuse, we really just need to be absolutely clear, upfront and straightforward that it is an evil—thoroughly, utterly, contemptible evil. There is no possibility of justification for man-boy love, or looking at the Greeks and thinking, "Weren't they wonderful" or whatever it may be. Treating children sexually is an evil that deserves to be punished. But our society has moved away from punishing evil, to looking at consequences, to first see if the consequences are deleterious to people and then complain about it. However, it was always an evil; it always should have been punished. There is no justification for it.
However, when you do look at the consequences, it's different from what we expected. I think back in the 20th century, people thought that child sexual offences would be forgotten by the children. Well now we have seen with overwhelming evidence that it affects people for the rest of their lives. It has terrible consequences. And our support and care for them has to be the first and foremost thing that we say, when the subject comes up (because of George Pell). I don't know about you, Tony, but I was struck by the appalling magnitude that the Royal Commission brought out of the widespread abuse of children in institutions. We can't airbrush that out of history.
TP: And the Roman Catholic Church was prominent within that Royal Commission—whether that was entirely because the prevalence was greater within the Roman Catholic Church, or whether there was any bias there, I don't know the details well enough to say. But certainly one of the reasons that Cardinal Pell’s death has such a terrible effect on people's emotions who've experienced abuse is that he represented the institution that was most significantly involved in the abuse.
PJ: Yes. He was the most senior member of the institution. What has he done about it? It’s a fair question to be put. I've read some critiques of the Royal Commission in terms of the bias. And I can see some substance in it. But whether there was bias or not, there was a problem within Roman Catholicism that was massive. And you're right, Cardinal Pell becomes the lightning rod for this. And so anybody who, at this point in time, writes in defense of Cardinal Pell's life and decisions will immediately arouse the outrage of those who were the victims of Roman Catholic abuse.
Did George Pell act to protect the Catholic Institution from financial recriminations? How much was he protecting some of the pedophiles that he knew personally? He was actually living with one of them.
It's too early, I feel, to write history. Generally you write history 30 or 40 years later, when some of the heat has gone out of the situation, and cooler heads can write it. Certainly, today, many people perceive him as someone personally responsible for the cover up, the institutional cover up. But I don't think I want to go into arguing one way or the other about it.
TP: When it comes to his own conviction, which is the other main thing that people have talked about, what sort of response should we have to that?
PJ: Well yes—sadly, George Pell was accused of sexually interfering with boys himself, and was found guilty and sent to prison. On appeal, he again continued in prison. He spent around 404 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement for his own protection. So it was a terrible thing. And when the appeal finally reached the High Court of Australia, the judges threw it out comprehensively, seven to zero. They said the case has not been properly made. They quashed it.
And at this point, people were polarized. Some said, “Oh, he's innocent”. And others said, “No, he's not innocent. He just has not been found guilty.” Benjamin Franklin amongst others said that it's better that a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer. You've got to have the presumption of innocence, and it was a bad thing that we (yes, we as a community) locked George Pell up for over a year for something that we couldn't prove that he'd ever done. That was an appalling injustice to have taken place.
In one sense, his eventual acquittal shows ultimately that justice does the right thing. But it also shows the frailty of our justice system. We have to take the survivors’ and the victims’ word seriously. But when it's one person's word against another, we cannot take judgment. We have to take a presumption of innocence. Otherwise, the whole legal system really does collapse.
TP: And the Bible reflects this as well, in its laws regarding witnesses and testimony and the just basis on which a judgment can be made.
PJ: Yes, that's right. Unfortunately, though, one of the big problems that we have is that the trial was not done in court, by looking at evidence, logically and properly. Instead the trial was done by the media. The fact that this particular accusation came in the context of the Royal Commission meant that people were already antagonistic towards Cardinal Pell, and the media (or elements of the media at least) had been particularly unhappy with him for a long time for other reasons as well. And so it meant it was very difficult for him to get a fair trial.
It's like the recent alleged rape case in Canberra, where this time politics (not religion) got involved to such an extent that the court itself had to postpone the case because they didn't think they could get a fair trial. The presumption of innocence doesn't exist in the minds of journalists. And the levels of evidence that journalists require are quite clearly different to the kinds of evidence that the courts require.
And in this case, there was an anti-religious element and bias in their coverage that really made a fair trial impossible for George Pell. And so I think, rather than George Pell having a lot to answer for, the media has a lot to answer for.
TP: It's interesting, one of Cardinal Pell's crimes was that he was a conservative—or arch-conservative as it's often said. It's funny that there don’t seem to be any arch-progressives anywhere, only arch-conservatives. Anyway, he not only stood for the Roman Catholic Church and for the institutional child abuse problem, but also within Catholicism itself he was a fairly straight up and down conservative Catholic—so that also made him on the nose as far as elements of our media were concerned.
PJ: So many journalists are postmodern in their view of language. They want to speak truth to power because they believe power biases people to not speak the truth and to constantly misrepresent themselves. But the journalists don't seem to understand that they themselves are powerful. And they don't apply the same rigor to their own statements as they do to other people. One of the newspapers I read has a series of articles called ‘opinion’ pieces, as if all the rest of the newspaper is not opinion; as if there's objective reporting and there's opinion. But the objective reporting is not objective. And the opinion pieces don't actually tell you what their opinion is and where their bias is. So when you read an article on sexual morality, you’ve got no idea whether the person is married seven times or married only once or not married at all. Yet their opinion is given as if it is an objective opinion, as if it can stand alone without reference to its author.
TP: In other words, it’s as if the journalists are saying, “It's your priors and your desire for power and your motives that affect you and really explain what you're saying. I don't have to listen to your argument because I know you're just defending your position.” But somehow their priors, their commitments, their power—they seem completely blind to that.
PJ: Yes, completely blind to it. See, Cardinal Pell was a cardinal. He was a Roman Catholic. His position was perfectly clear, as opposed to the journalists, whose positions and values are never clear.
TP: Cardinal Pell wore fancy colourful clothes to demonstrate to everyone exactly what his position was at all times. You could never have any doubt as to who he was and what he stood for.
PJ: He was a conservative in the sense that he wanted to conserve the truth of orthodox Roman Catholicism. I've had three conversations with him over the years, and my understanding of what he was saying to me was that Catholicism and Christianity actually are objectively true. Things in the Bible did happen: Jesus did live, he did die, he did rise again. And we determine what the truth of Christianity is by the teachings of Jesus, not by what is acceptable to the world today. We don't reshape the teachings of Jesus to fit in with the world. If Jesus was God, then what he thinks about us is more important than what we think about Jesus. And the idea that we can somehow accommodate Jesus to fit in with the 21st century is a distortion of Christianity and a distortion of Catholic teaching.
And so he was trying to conserve the authentic message of the Lord Jesus Christ, and well, I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I think it's the right thing to do.
TP: So did you end up as great friends and decide that you just basically agreed about things?
PJ: Well, we didn’t meet often enough to say we were friends, but we did agree about certain things, and we disagreed about other things. You see, I'm a Protestant and he is a Roman Catholic. And those two have profound disagreement. But both of us agreed that there is an authentic Christianity that we were seeking to uphold. I had enormous respect for him. He was an intelligent man. In his conversations with me, he was friendly, warm—inasmuch as, you know, men talking together about serious things express warmth—and he was certainly well educated.
But George Pell was a Roman Catholic Cardinal. And, as such, he rejected Protestantism. Just as I am a Protestant, and therefore I reject Roman Catholicism as the true understanding of Christianity. You see, he rejected the Reformation. He rejected the ultimate authority of the Scriptures over the church. He saw the Church as the definer of the Scriptures. And as such, he rejected justification by faith alone. Since the Reformation, Catholicism has accepted other things, such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the 19th century, the authority of the Pope in terms of infallibility under certain circumstances in the 20th century, as well as the bodily Assumption of Mary. As a Roman Catholic Cardinal, I had no doubt that those things were all things that Cardinal Pell was committed to.
I think they're all wrong, every one of them, but that I think they're wrong doesn't mean I lacked respect for him or lacked friendship towards him.
Last week, the Church Missionary Society held their annual Summer School up at Katoomba. It was a great week. In it, there was an Italian speaker, Leonardo de Chirico. And he gave a terrific talk about Catholicism, having grown up in the heart of Catholicism in Italy himself. As a Christian, an evangelical Bible believer, he showed the difference between the gospel via Roman Catholicism and the gospel that has been held for the last 500 years in Protestantism, and the fact that they are in contradiction to each other. An idea that “Oh, well, the Reformation is all over, we all now agree on things”—now that kind of watering down of the validity of truth, Cardinal Pell would not have approved of, nor do I approve of.
TP: One of the ironies of Cardinal Pell's position and the Roman Catholic position is that he was critical of the modern tendency to accommodate the truth of God to human reason, to human trends; to subject the teachings of Christ to a human standard. Whereas looked at from another perspective, that's really the problem of Catholicism itself: that it subordinates the teachings of Christ in Scripture to a human standard, or in this case, a human church.
In many ways, when you look at the kinds of things you've mentioned—the authority of the Pope as opposed to the authority of Scripture, the participation of Mary in salvation as opposed to the sole mediation of Christ, justification by faith in the work of Christ alone in contrast with the contribution of our merits and works to salvation—in each case, the creaturely, human participation in salvation and authority is what undermines the sole authority, grace and place of Jesus. And so it's interesting how, in some ways, the error of Catholicism is another version of the modern error that Cardinal Pell himself would have criticized.
PJ: Yes, yes, you're right, because ultimately, theological Arminianism places humans at the centre rather than God. And Roman Catholicism is an example of theological Arminianism, just like theological liberalism and rationalism.
TP: So coming back to our response to a friend who's asked us about Cardinal Pell—eventually that conversation will land in some pretty foundational and fundamental aspects of the gospel itself, because Cardinal Pell was both an upholder of the objective truth of Christianity and an underminer of that truth through his Roman Catholic convictions. Is that the kind of place where you’d like to get to when having a conversation about someone like George Pell?
PJ: I always want to get towards gospel issues. But of course, it depends on the context and the relationship as to how I would be throwing out the one- or two-liners to initiate more conversation. But either way I’d want to wind up saying, "Whether he's a good man or a bad man, whether your view of him was that or not, in the end, he stood for a view of Christianity that didn't make the gospel clear."
TP: And that's our goal as we speak with people—to make the gospel clear. And if talking about Cardinal Pell in a respectful and thoughtful way, such as we've tried to model today, helps us do that … well, we must pray that we have those kinds of opportunities to talk with people.
PJ: Yes, and not avoid them. It's a conversation starter that's out there, and will be for some time to come.
Have you had any conversations about George Pell in the last few weeks? Anything you’d like to add from personal experience or reflection to the above thoughts?
Get in touch and share your ideas, and (as usual) we’ll pass the best of them onto everyone in a future edition.
Two good books on Roman Catholicism:
The road once travelled, by Mark Gilbert. An excellent little book that invites Roman Catholics to find out about the Jesus we discover in the Bible; a great resource to give to Catholic friends.
Nothing in my hand I bring, by Ray Galea. A warm, clear summary of the important differences between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Christianity; a helpful book for evangelicals to read, and to give to someone from a Catholic background who has come to know Christ and is trying to think through Catholicism.