Pell’s legacy haunts Australia’s Catholic bishops

Feb 2, 2023
Cardinal George Pell (Australia) arrives at the synod on themes of family, sex and marriage at the Vatican on October 15, 2014. Image: Alamy

But truth can set them free.

George Pell’s funeral presents a problem for Australia’s Catholic bishops. They will be comfortable gathering to give their colleague his rightful requiem and final dismissal, according to the rights of the church. They will know, however, that as the Catholic community looks on it will be preoccupied by one question: Do each of these men share Pell’s views on the church, and more specifically, Pope Francis?

Most of Australia’s current bishops owe their status to the patronage of Pell. They now own his legacy, and this exposes them. Will they be honest and identify themselves with the Pell views? Or will they, true to type, lie low, say nothing, and marinate in secrecy and deception?

There is no doubt that the cardinal’s unexpected death and subsequent revelations stemming from his posthumous Spectator article and his outing as the author of the secret memo on the Francis pontificate, put intense pressure on his chosen acolytes.

It seems the strong man who strode both church and public stages with a super confident, if not dismissive attitude, was in fact a very disloyal lieutenant. In common Australian parlance, he could be described as ‘a snake in the grass’, who was obviously deeply committed to stalling and ultimately trashing the Francis agenda.

One was left to wonder whether the brave Pell had the courage to say directly to Francis what he catalogued in his secret memo. In recent days Pope Francis has told us, in an interview with Associated Press, that his cardinal had not raised the matters directly with him. Graciously, Francis defended Pell’s right to hold and express the views he did but said he would prefer that such comments were put directly to him, rather than behind his back. The pontiff said it is preferable to say things openly “to our faces because that’s how we all grow”.

By reacting in this way, the Pope is giving living expression to the synodal process he espouses, where people speak openly of their thoughts and are listened to with respect, leading to a shared accommodation. But we now know from George Pell’s Spectator article, that he dismissed the centrepiece of the Francis reforms, synodality, as a “toxic nightmare”.

Clearly George Pell and Pope Francis had significantly different understandings of what the church should be and how it should function. The disagreements were not so much theological as ecclesiological. They were intense nonetheless and they could be neatly summarised by stating that Francis was committed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council – but George was not.

Francis has spent the last 10 years gently, but sometimes firmly, attempting to get the church to focus on and return to the vision of church set out in Vatican II. Increasingly traditionalists like Pell have grown unhappy, preferring the safety and certitude of the John Paul II and Benedict tenures, which effectively wound back the reforms to the point where they were becoming a mere footnote in history, not the inspired wisdom of the church’s highest teaching authority.

Given Pell’s influence, one would reasonably expect his chosen ones to be sympathetic to his planning and plotting to nobble the synodal process and ensure that the next pope is more amenable to church traditionalists.

Australia’s bishops have dutifully encouraged Australian Catholics to participate in the world synod process, which tended to gazump the latter stages of the local Plenary Council. Given all that we now know, Catholics in each diocese are entitled to hear from their local bishop whether he is truly committed to the Francis model, or merely going through the motions because they share at least some of the Pell “nightmare” scenario.

But do all of Australia’s bishops fully subscribe to the Pell views of the Francis pontificate and synodality? We know that Archbishops Fisher, Comensoli, Porteous and probably Prowse, of Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Canberra respectively, certainly do. While their words have often been highly qualified, their actions or inaction leave little doubt. They have seemingly decided to ‘wait out’ the rest of the Francis pontificate. But what of the rest?

Now is the opportunity for the bulk of the bishops to break the shackles and express their own real views – no matter what side of the argument they may support. Why? Because the Australian Catholic community wants them to be fair dinkum. It is as simple and sad as that. Silence is no longer an option and, fairly, should be treated as closet support for the Pell insurgency.

Over the years Pell used every lever available to him to entrench the view that bishops must simply obey. The church did not need leaders who are independent thinkers, or indeed thinkers of much capacity at all. Instead, it wanted compliance, obedience and an assurance of safety. This became the criteria for episcopal appointments and Pell as ‘the gatekeeper’ for such promotions in Australia used his influence to ensure they were applied rigorously.

This arid and ultimately fruitless approach characterised the Australian church for most of the past 30 years. Come the sexual abuse crisis and the church reaped the whirlwind of a leadership cadre that lacked the mettle for the task. Instead of leaders with integrity and insight they had become a form of diocesan franchise managers – sticking tightly to a script from head office. This was remarked upon by thousands of submissions lay Catholics made to the Plenary Council. Like so much in that process, the bishops controlled the agenda and made sure that their own performance was not listed for consideration. The fact is undeniable that vast numbers of Australian Catholics have little confidence in their bishops.

There was one notable exception to the demand for compliance and conformity by bishops. This was the tragedy that befell Bill Morris, Bishop of Toowoomba, who took his responsibilities of pastoral leadership seriously and saw that things had to change if a sacramental church was to continue offering services in his diocese, geographically 1.5 times the size of Italy but with only a sprinkling of priests.

His reward for such honesty came in 2011 after he was set up by George Pell and Pope Benedict. Morris refused the Pope’s demand for his resignation, leading to his effective sacking by Pope Benedict. He was then shamefully hung out to dry by his brother bishops – with only one or two showing public support. The rest chose to look the other way -seemingly they had careers to protect. Morris remains a prophetic figure in the contemporary Australian church. He continues to minister as a humble priest, without bitterness, in Queensland parishes.

The bulk of Australia’s episcopate carry the Pell yoke of being Francis-sceptics. Not just because they owed their positions to Pell, but because they have met the criteria for their appointment, demonstrating a record of timidity and ineffectiveness which, when confronted with challenges, they attempt to mask by a collective resort to fudging inertia. At its essence they seem unable to imagine a church in the mould of Pope Francis and fear the processes required to create it.

So, are Australian Catholics going to be told the truth as to how many and who among the bishops share the views of Pell on Pope Francis and his reform efforts? These questions will haunt the bishops until they are answered frankly. It might take courage – but isn’t that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Is being honest that difficult!

George Pell’s death has left a potential vacancy for an Australian to be appointed a cardinal. Both Pell and Benedict are now dead. Pope Francis could make no clearer statement to the Australian Catholic community than to offer a red hat to Bill Morris.

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