Culture wars are simply factional standoffs given a zippy title. The Church has had them forever. George Pell is a warrior of the right. His conviction is a setback for the right – but only a setback. The war still goes on.
The first standoff between Christian leaders was between Paul, the travelling missionary, and James the leader of the local church in Jerusalem. Both were Jews to their bootstraps, but Paul’s tours were in the gentile world. If gentiles found faith in Jesus as The Lord, he accepted them directly into the fold – not expecting them to become Jews first. Baptism replaced circumcision. James was not happy, so Paul went to Jerusalem to have it out. He won. Ultimately Christianity became a separate religion from Judaism.
The standoff was over whether we go beyond accepted barriers or see the signs of the times and branch out in a new direction. The question only arose because new opportunities beckoned. If Paul’s policy had been successfully blocked, Christianity would have remained a sect within Judaism and probably faded away. Two green lights were necessary: Paul’s vision of expansion and James’s final acceptance – bipartisanship. It is wise to be cautious; But refusal to adapt is death.
Factional confrontation has endured in Christianity to this day. The liberal faction is committed to moving with the needs of the times. The conservative faction does not like change and wants creed, rules and structures to stay the same. This outlook is reactionary, and sometimes restorationist.
Christianity became institutionalised early. Structure, doctrine and laws developed. A movement of faith became an organised religion. It began as a movement imitating Jesus way of life; it became a large organisation with systematised beliefs and laws. It developed a priesthood which controlled the beliefs and laid down the laws. It became literally hierarchical (priest-ruled).
Power is seductive and became a point of division as the hierarchy’s power expanded. Some hierarchs still gave priority to the Jesus way of life, but most gave priority to controlling the organisation – a tension.
Power is maintained by control. Church hierarchy:
· Controls the ideology and propaganda;
· Controls the law;
· Controls the liturgy and
· Controls the selection of bishops.
The last of these has been a major tactic in the Catholic Culture Wars. The Catholic Church is still an old-style monarchy. The bishop runs his diocese answerable only to the Pope. He is the sole overseer of doctrine, law and administration in his diocese. There is no separation of powers, no accountability, no transparency.
Since the start of the 20th century the Pope has claimed the sole right to appoint all bishops. Since Vatican II the popes have used this power to control the church. Paul VI used this power to reign in the Dutch Catholic Church. He saw it as too liberal too fast. He appointed conservative bishops Adrien Simonis to Rotterdam and Jan Gijsen to Roermond against local recommendations. The Dutch implementation of Vatican II was the most visionary and energetic in Europe. Paul’s appointments crushed that movement. He won the battle but lost the war. Rank and file Dutch Catholics simply turned their backs and walked away. Gone forever.
John Paul II turned episcopal selection into an art form. Benedict XVI continued the policy. Wear the clerical collar, oppose contraception, women’s ordination and general confession. Toe Wojtyla’s line or be dropped; no consideration given to pastoral commitment.
The result is a world-wide episcopacy high on compliance, low on leadership and heavily skewed to the right. It’s unfair to blame them because they were chosen precisely for these qualities.
George Pell has had ever-growing influence in Rome since the 90s when he was appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For years he was also on the congregation that selected bishops.
Pell has been in the vanguard of the ideology and propaganda battles of the Wojtyla era. The Theology of the Body, with its excessive weight on sexual ethics, became a key descriptor of living the Christian life. Institutions like opus Dei, The JP II Institute for Marriage and the Family, The Napa Institute in California and Notre Dame university, Sydney promoted the ideology supported by conservative writers like George Weigel, Ross Douthat and John Haldane.
Pell’s conviction will probably lessen his influence, but his legacy will continue. Most Australian episcopal appointments for the last thirty years are clearly his choice. His ghost haunts the two main sees of Sydney and Melbourne. Both archbishops are his protégés, educated in his ideology. Both could hold their posts for 20 years.
His hand can also be seen in English and USA episcopal appointments.
The whole English-speaking world is saddled with a Mass text produced under the control of Pell’s Vox Clara committee. An ideological victory, but a liturgical disaster and a pastoral deterrent.
The present management structure of the Church has failed us. New, more representative management is necessary to prevent further implosion. Pell’s conviction brings all this back to mind and into sharp focus.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.