Eric Hodgens. Pell and the Royal Commission: Spotlight on Ideology.

Mar 18, 2016

When Cardinal George Pell enters the witness box at the Royal Commission we see a legal counsel interviewing him to find to what extent he is to blame for a failure in his church’s duty of care. The adversarial setup puts him on the defensive. He admits past reticence to intervene, but says others are mainly to blame. But as he defends himself he is also displaying himself. He is, on his own admission wooden –emotionally distant. He is sure of himself but unconvincing to others. What we see is an ideologue in action. How did he get to here?

During the 1960s a liberal movement swept the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. It opened the gates of a fortress church to new ideas, new liturgy, new rules. It was a pastoral council, It reversed the tight church control that had become entrenched over the years following the 16th century Council of Trent.

In true Hegelian style, an opposing movement developed, working hard to retain the pre-council policies and rules. So, the progressive/conservative culture wars began in the late 1960s. During the 70s this liberal movement grew strong. But during the 80s the conservatives regained lost ground. Karol Wojtyla, who was elected pope in 1978, was focussed on dismantling the liberal changes. He wanted a disciplined church with crystal clear policies in creed and action like the one that sustained him in the dark days of communist Poland.

George Pell was ordained for the diocese of Ballarat in 1966. His bishop, Jim O’Collins, was a committed conservative and strongly aligned with Bob Santamaria, the leading lay conservative voice. He recruited George to his team. He sent him off to Oxford to get a doctorate in order to be able to joust with the progressives on his return. Jim wanted someone who could take on the likes of Max Charlesworth – a leading academic progressive voice. George returned from Oxford as a Conservative Warrior and a protégée of Bob Santamaria.

George has remained true to that vocation ever since. He has always been a politician – an ecclesiastical politician. His career path took off when he was appointed principal of Aquinas Teachers College, Ballarat in 1974. This appointment introduced him to wheeling and dealing with governments and unions. Ballarat’s Aquinas College became a campus of the newly created Australian Catholic University with George as a key participant in the negotiations between church and government. From 1978 to 1986 the papal nuncio was Luigi Brambilla. He was close to Bob Santamaria and would have noticed this rising star so politically in tune with the new pope. By 1985 it was Ballarat’s turn to provide a rector for the seminary. George got the job – another good career step.

In 1987 Archbishop Frank Little asked Rome for two auxiliary bishops. He got Peter Connors and George. George was Rome’s choice. Rome now had its man in the Melbourne curia. In 1990 George was appointed a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – the Church’s policy watchdog headed by Josef Ratzinger. His conservative ideology and warrior style had gained approval on high. This job involved regular participation in Roman meetings and wheeling and dealing in Vatican politics. Over the 10 years that he held that job George became a recognised figure in Vatican corridors.

In January 1996 Frank Little went to Rome to negotiate a congenial coadjutor with right of succession. He came home empty handed. Then, the following July he took early retirement and who was appointed to replace him but George.What had happened? Well, George told the Royal Commission that Frank had been asked to put in his retirement early. That response shone the spotlight on George’s political connections in Rome. George denied that Frank’s retirement had been negotiated with him. But whichever way it went, Rome now had their man in Australia’s biggest diocese – and George knew about the intrigue. Wandering the Vatican halls of power at regular intervals pays off. In 2001 George was appointed archbishop of Sydney. He became a cardinal in 2003 and got his job as Secretary of the Economy in Rome in 2014.

George’s conservative ideology was highlighted by another sequence in the Royal Commission. He claimed that he had been kept in the dark by Frank Little and the Catholic Education Office (CEO) about the background to the Fr. Peter Searson case. He and Frank had “quite different approaches to theology”. The CEO knew he was not “cut from the same cloth” as the archbishop. They knew he did not approve of their approach to religious education. He claimed to have cleaned the show up when he became archbishop. This claim is spelt out in an address he gave in Cork in 2011. It is worth looking up at: (

Andrew Bolt interviewed George shortly after his Royal Commission appearance ( “I was a supporter of Bob Santamaria” he said as a reason for the wariness of bishops and priests in trusting him. What a story that claim entailed! Back in the 50s and 60s a large portion of Melbourne priests would also have supported Bob Santamaria. But after the Labour split in 1953 and the divisiveness of the DLP, most changed their mind and saw Bob’s National Civic Council (NCC) as damaging to the Church as well as the ALP.

“Radical liberalism in faith and morals around the world is destroying the Church” he told Andrew Bolt. He remains the proud, ideological warrior in the style of Santamaria, Wojtyła and Ratzinger. His realization that this set him apart from most priests shows he is aware of the larger liberal wing in the Australian Catholic Church. Conservatives like George still make a lot of noise in the Church. But the opposing wing is larger and more pastoral. They believe that ideology is the antithesis of genuine faith. If you are interested I have written on this topic elsewhere. It is on my blog at:

The present pope abhors ideology – of right or of left. His model of priesthood is Shepherd-Pastor rather than Defender-Warrior. But George is unfazed as his Royal Commission testimony shows. And the culture wars are still alive – especially in the Vatican.

Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest who ‘writes a bit’.

Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!