The gospel according to George

GEORGE PELL is a big man. He stands six three and a half in his stockinged feet, towering over most of his fellow Catholics even without his archbishop’s hat. The slight stoop of his shoulders, as if he is forever leaning down to listen, does  little to compensate.

His height is what ordinary Catholics first notice about him when he’s out doing the rounds. They remark on it in an undertone, some slightly awed, as if his physical size is an outward sign of his spiritual stature. His height seems fitting for his place in the hierarchy: George Pell is the Pope’s man in Melbourne. In every sense.

His intense loyalty to Rome makes his appointment one of the most controversial in Victoria’s church history. To conservative Catholics, it is like the second coming: a promise of renewal based on a return to tradition, a chance for the liberal drift within the church to be arrested, a doctrinal cleansing. “At last we have a real archbishop!” read a placard at his enthronement ceremony in August. “God-sent,” said a letter to a newspaper.

To liberals he is, theologically speaking, a dinosaur in a dog collar; a hard-liner with a romantic longing for the past who resists the need for the church to change in the modern world. They fear his orthodox vision will alienate more people than it attracts. “George will dig a hole for the church to fall into,” says one Melbourne priest.

Pell certainly has a clear sense of where he wants to go. The question is whether he will be able to take what’s left of his flock with him. Some parish priests are already uneasy. He has told them that being a good priest in the field is all very well, but they must also look to their “spirituality”. For this, some read “orthodoxy”.

Today, Pell is at centre stage at a comfortable Catholic scene. He is at St Michael’s church in North Melbourne to lead Mass and bless a new school library. St Michael’s has a lovingly carved marble altar, lavish with angels and cupolas and gilt trim. High above Pell is a huge painting of St Michael the Archangel, his sword at Lucifer’s neck as he enforces the fallen angel’s banishment from heaven.

St Michael’s was built in 1907 and reflects Catholicism’s view of itself then: grand, soaring and certain. If you missed Mass on Sunday or ate a meat pie on Friday you knew you’d broken the rules. Today, there is debate is not just about which rules matter, but about to what degree the church hierarchy even has the right to insist on them.

PELL was born in Ballarat 55 years ago. He was preceded by twins; one was stillborn and the other died soon after birth. “As a result of that, I certainly got my share of affection,” he says.

His mother was a third-generation Australian of Irish stock. His father was a publican and an Anglican. “I had a good family,” he recalls. “They were both strong people, both warm. Mum was deeply religious. Neither of them were highly educated . . . but both could speak English well in the sense that they were entertaining speakers. They expressed their point of view succinctly.”

And forcefully? He chuckles. “Yeah. People talk about women having been downtrodden in the past – and I’ve no doubt that is and was true – but it certainly wasn’t in my mother’s family. She and her sisters were used to having their say and used to being heard.”

Pell’s easy manner with parishioners probably owes something to having grown up in his dad’s pub, mixing with all kinds of people as he pulled beers behind the counter. His early sporting prowess echoed his father, who was a heavyweight boxing champion.

The young George was a golden boy at St Patrick’s secondary school in Ballarat. He stood out in football, rowing and athletics (he was not just big, but fast); he was a prefect, won prize after prize in public speaking and debate and was a star scholar. He took a leading role in the school play, the cadet corps and Catholic activities. “He was just at the top of the tree,” says Tony Joyce, a lawyer who went to school with Pell. “He was a big man and, in some ways, ungainly, but he was very determined to succeed and worked terribly hard at it.”

What drove him Pell to such effort? Joyce puts it down to the school’s ethos that the boys should do the best they could with the gifts they had. Pell says his parents were ambitious for him “but if it was a pressure, I found it congenial”.

Somewhere in the background is an even younger George, a child who missed a lot of primary school due to repeated operations for a tumor in his neck. “I was sick and miserable on and off for some years,” is all he wants to say about that. But perhaps by the time he reached St Pat’s, he had a lot of ground to make up; or perhaps he felt he had to compensate for his background. Having a non-Catholic father made him a rare specimen. The closed world of 1940s Catholicism had few kids from “mixed marriages”.

Pell’s rise in the church, based on the twin virtues of intellect and orthodoxy, has echoed his school career. He is now seen as a golden boy in Rome, where he has a much higher profile than your average bishop and certainly more than the man he succeeded in August, Sir Frank Little. He has been rewarded for his loyalty to the Vatican team. He belongs to several organisations, including the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the prime organ for preserving the purity of church teachings, or the Catholic thought police, depending on your point of view).

Sources close to the archdiocese say his Roman connections helped get him the job. The story goes that Little had asked for a coadjutor archbishop to help him as his health was deteriorating. Rome offered Little one candidate and it is presumed that this was Pell. Little said he wanted to submit a list of candidates. Rome refused to consider them and suggested that, given his ill health, Little should resign. It is also believed that Archbishop Little was feeling worn down by conservative Catholics who had been “delating” – or reporting – him to Rome for being too “soft” on some matters of church discipline.

A spokesman for the archdiocese, Father Mark Coleridge, said he had no doubt that Little was delated and that this would inevitably happen to Pell, too. But he said that Little’s resignation was a far more complex matter: “Be very cautious when you hear simplistic accounts of church politics. I’m not sure that anyone – and I mean anyone – would know the full story of the transfer of authority from Archbishop Little to Archbishop Pell.”

PELL downplays his hard-line image on doctrine: “I don’t think there would be radical differences between me and any other Catholic bishop who remains in his job,” he says, raising his eyebrows in amusement at the obviousness of it all.

But he does stand out as a churchman who calls a spade a heathen shovel. He has introduced terms such as “pagan” into public debate. He likened philosopher Peter Singer to King Herod’s propanganda chief when Singer discussed euthanasia for newborns (in the Bible, King Herod ordered a slaughter of babies). But although he is still an arch-opponent of the ordination of Catholic women, he has given up using the term “priestesses”. “People seem to object to it, (and) I don’t want to offend people unnecessarily,” he says.

Pell’s manner of speaking is as weighty as his position. He talks gravely and with a practised timbre. He has a reputation for intellectual fierceness (he has a PhD from Oxford) and for straight talking, but he can also be very personable.

He has some unpretentious ways. His ceremonial life is full of pomp but his pocket diary is a battered little plastic number held together by the grace of God and lots of sticky tape. Father Michael McGirr, editor of the magazine Australian Catholics, was once asked by an elderly priest who knew Pell to deliver the archbishop a pot of home-made marmalade. An embarrassed McGirr feared Pell might think he was being sent up, but “George was really delighted with it and laughed and laughed. Maybe he has to eat marmalade out of tins”.

In this interview in his office in East Melbourne, Pell is pleasant and courteous and chooses his words with a politician’s deftness. He loses his poise only when asked for his favorite joke. “Oh my God,” he mutters in dismay. “I don’t think I have one.”

Pressed on controversial issues, such as what he would do with priests or organisations who do not toe his doctrinal line, he says merely, “I’d hope it would be rarely necessary.” It seems he abides by the rule he sets for his clergy: keep divisions in the family. He has likened church leadership to cabinet and suggested that those who could not maintain solidarity should leave – “leave the cabinet, not the party”, he clarifies today.

“He’s very much a rules and regulations man,” says John Stuart, a Catholic and former priest who was a seminarian with Pell. “There was a saying in the seminary, ‘You keep the rules and the rules will keep you’. The danger in that is that if it’s just a rules and regulations thing, there’s no life in it. The rules become little truths rather than an expression of what can help people to grow and to love.” It also leaves little room for dissent: “George’s problem is that he sees debate as disunity, if not disloyalty.”

It is understandable that Pell feels protective of his church. In Australia it is in decline. On any given Sunday only 19 per cent of Catholics attend Mass, down 10 per cent in the past seven years. On current trends, within 15 years 80 Melbourne parishes will be without a priest.

A church that preaches strict sexual restraint has been repeatedly shamed by revelations about its paedophile priests and brothers and by its own inadequate response to the problem. This has hurt the church’s credibility with the outside world and shaken the morale of those inside it.

There are two readings of the church’s problems. Conservatives like Pell want to revive tradition and fundamental values. They argue that people need certainty in the form of clear guidance, especially in an age where almost nothing else can be relied upon. They emphasise that the Pope’s teachings are divine guidance and believe that, as the Pope requested in 1993, the faithful should be “guarded” from alternative doctrines.

Another reading is that there can be no going back, because the world is different now. Catholics no longer grow up in a cocoon. The church’s own education system has taught lay people how to think and question more than it might like. Liberals believe they should take the church’s teachings into account on moral issues but emphasise the role of individual conscience.

“The spirit of Vatican II hasn’t triumphed, but it has had an effect,” says Max Charlesworth, a liberal Catholic and emeritus professor of philosophy. “Lots of Catholics made up their own mind to be Catholics in their own way.”

Pell acknowledges that people do not sin if they believe that what they are doing is right. But he points out that conscience can be mistaken, and “if you give an unfettered right to private conscience, you can destroy the cohesion of any group of people”. While his limits on public dissent might be tighter than some other bishops’, he is “not interested in unchurching my opponents or those who differ from me”.

If Pell’s vision is to prevail, he must sell it to young Catholics and to his priests. Some have already taken a stand against him. This month he instigated changes that will turn back the clock on the training of parish priests. Five staff at Melbourne’s largest seminary resigned rather than implement his directives.

Ordinary Catholics will notice that things are different when Pell swings their children’s religious education to the right. “People get a tiny dose of religion, imagine it’s the real thing, and then they’re inoculated against the real thing,” Pell says. “I’ve had parents and kids say to me that it’s easier to be a good Catholic in some state high schools than it is in some Catholic secondary schools, because there is such hostility to people who stick their neck out for firm, clear, Catholic teaching.”

Church surveys have found that many teenagers are indifferent to their religion and up to 20 per cent are hostile, Pell says. But his belief that they need better explanation of the reasons behind church teachings sits awkwardly with the fact that the hostile kids already resent the church’s doctrines on sex. (They forbid premarital sex, masturbation, contraception, abortion, divorce and homosexual activity.)

“They don’t like that,” Pell says. “They reject it. And also there’s a dimension of sadness in the children of broken families, who feel their parents are rejected (by the church). One answer is to say that we mustn’t speak about the ideal of lifelong marriage because we’ll make the kids of broken marriages feel guilty. I think that’s a colossal mistake, because if anybody needs to hear about the advantages of lifelong marriages it’s these kids.”

He doesn’t believe that the church is out of touch with young people because it is authoritarian. “The problem with young people today is not that they are being belted into line in an authoritarian way but that they haven’t got enough to hang on to in a difficult and changing world. They’re not being given a clear straight line for them to accept or reject.”

Pell’s theological conservatism does not necessarily extend to wider issues. “Economies exist for people, not vice versa,” he says. “A narrow, primitive economic rationalism which excludes much of a role for government could be disastrous for society.” He warns that Australia must work “with might and main” to avoid creating an underclass.

“He does have a very deep social conscience on issues of justice and honesty, hard work and poverty,” says Father Geoffrey James, who worked with Pell at Corpus Christi College. His weaknesses? “Perhaps, like most of us, he has a big struggle to keep on listening.”

Father Peter Norden, associate director of Melbourne Catholic Social Services, found him able to listen on one issue. Norden was once on a panel with Pell, consulting the public about the prison system. Pell began with a layman’s knowledge of the justice system but after several days of hearings, “What he heard mobilised him and he became an enthusiast for spreading the word for the need for reform . . . he displayed a capacity to observe and to respond, to modify his position.”

So it is possible that Pell will grow into the job in ways that might surprise his critics. As a bishop he was not at the forefront of efforts by the Australian bishops’ conference to develop a national policy on sexual abuse by clergy. But his first big initiative as archbishop was a strategy to deal with victims’ needs.

He acknowledges that the church has not responded quickly or well to this “frightful mess”. He puts that down to “ignorance, fear, shame. A natural tendency to inertia. And we didn’t talk about these things 20, even 10 years ago the way we do now”.

But he resists any deeper reading. Some paedophile priests argue that as they have spent their whole lives in a Catholic bubble, they are “creatures of the church”. The bishops’ conference has commissioned research into whether factors unique to the church have encouraged paedophilia.

Pell says: “It’s something we’ve got to look at, but I don’t think it is greater in our Catholic community than it is in the wider community . . . It’s just that the spotlight has been put on us. And that’s no excuse; given our principles, there should be much less of it (with us).”

IT IS a grey spring evening and across the sloping lawns of Xavier College, Melbourne’s most prestigious Catholic school, trail women. Hundreds of them: grandmothers and professional women, housewives and hairdressers.

They have come for a “women’s spirituality night” at which three women will talk of their personal journeys. A similar event in Sydney attracted more than 2000. It’s a novelty for Catholics to hear women speak from an altar. The Pope has said women will never be ordained and that there is no room for debate. The bottom line seems to be that because Christ and his apostles were men, men must be more God-like.

The church’s limits on entry to the priesthood threaten to fail its followers on a practical level. Many are more concerned about the prospect of having no one to say Mass for them than they are about priests’ sex or their marital status, according to the archdiocese’s own report, Tomorrow’s Church. Unasked, 60 per cent of Melbourne parishes suggested that the church consider allowing married priests and 46 per cent suggested it consider the ordination of women.

Tonight the first speaker is the journalist Geraldine Doogue. She talks about women as nurturers and about why it is that men sometimes find it hard to nurture back. She tells of the husband in a dysfunctional family who was asked by a social worker why he found it hard to give his wife credit. “Because it would rob me of my self-esteem,” he says.

Asked whether the church nurtures its women, Pell says: “I don’t think any institution in the Western World has done more for women than the Catholic church. We introduced monogamy, as distinct from polygamy . . . There’s the ideal of womanhood; one example is the blessed virgin Mary.”

A dutiful mother who was sexually inactive? Isn’t that rather a passive ideal? “Motherhood is not a passive role,” he says. “Not having sex – that can be an active struggle too.”

The clergy who advise Pell have no women in their ranks. There are some on the boards of the church’s welfare and education organisations but he admits that communication between women and their bishops is not what it should be. So how does he know what the concerns of ordinary women are? “A lot of people are very keen to inform me of that and do regularly, and I try to listen.”

The question makes one of Pell’s close associates, the arch-conservative Bob Santamaria, impatient. “I don’t hear anyone else but women talking in the church these days,” he says. “The feminisation of the church is one of its real problems. Women run schools, women run hospitals, they are lecturers in the Catholic University. This thing that they’ve got no voice is garbage. When you find that more and more of the liturgical structures are filled by women, the great danger for religion is that it will come to be seen as soft and unmanly.”

Pell has a good 20 years ahead as archbishop of Melbourne, so his commitment to male clerical leadership sends a Siberian chill through those who want more say for women and lay men. Their views were summed up by Veronica Brady, a nun and academic, who told Pell in a 1993 debate: “The Roman Catholic church to which I belong doesn’t just belong to the papacy or the bishops . . . I find it difficult to square that the teaching authority of the church doesn’t also have to listen to the experiences of the people who live out these problems.”

Marie Joyce, an associate professor with the Australian Catholic University, told a Catholic Education Commission conference in May that a “crisis of authenticity” was emerging because the church fails to live by the values it preaches.

It talks about the poor but clings to its property and worldly power, she said; the sexes are supposed to be equal but women are locked out of its structures. Joyce claimed that many priests are forced to espouse beliefs they do not hold. “Within the church there is a culture of fear about speaking out, arising from the punitive experiences of those who have spoken out and suffered.”

Pell denies that there is a culture of fear: “The Catholic Church in Australia is probably mildly remarkable for the fact that so many leading people in the past four or five years have publicly dissented from the Pope and remained in leading positions.” But several people contacted for this story felt they could not put their names to their comments.

IN OLDEN times, bishops were princes. Catholics still call Pell “Your grace” and he has his own coat of arms. (He chose the motto “Be Not Afraid”.) At a funeral service in Fawkner, there is a scene that echoes this earlier age.

The service is for a Chinese priest who worked in nine Melbourne parishes with large Italian communities. Today, 700 people cram into a bare modern church and sing hymns in Italian to farewell this Chinese refugee who cared for them.

After the service they spill on to the concrete outside and the older Italians line up in front of Pell to pay their respects. They reach for his hand, then bend and kiss his knuckles or his ring in an ancient gesture of homage. Some wipe away tears. Pell is unsurprised and responds to each one with a few words or a blessing.

Later, when he tries to pose for a photograph, he is surrounded by a flock of giggling nonnas half his size who want to get in the picture too. They are quite unembarrassed; he is their archbishop, the face of their church, and he belongs to them. This is Catholic faith in the old style, ritualised, tribalised and unquestioning.

But it is only one face of today’s church. Outsiders tend to view Catholicism as monolithic, but it is not so much an Uluru of belief as a vast ocean in which swim many schools of thought.

Pell recognises this. “The Catholic Church is a great church. It’s not a sect,” he says. “Often a sect is a small number of very devout and committed people with a very tight set of beliefs . . . Now the Catholic Church has one billion people in it. We’ve been going for 2000 years. There are different theologies. There are different emphases in pastoral practices. There are very different styles of spirituality. There are possibly more than 100 religious orders.”

It is his task to help hold all that together. He is meant to personify the church’s unity; he is the conductor of the orchestra. If he fails to carry people with him, his real power will be limited indeed, says one of his priests. “Everyone will jack up and won’t cooperate. That’s what’s happened in (New Zealand), where an ideological sort of appointment ended with the archbishop retiring to a Benedictine monastery.”

When Pell is asked whether he can cop the flak he might face, he smiles. The answer he gives would serve for all those other questions about the direction of the Catholic Church in the next millenium. He says: “Time will tell.”


Catholics: 978,844.

Parishes: 233.

Diocesan priests available for appointment: 309.

Primary school pupils: 75,541.

Secondary school pupils: 58,690.

Hospitals: 10.

Amount spent on welfare: $110 million.
Parishes that face being without a priest within 15 years: 80.

Parishes suggesting unasked that married priests should be considered: 60 per cent.

Parishes suggesting unasked that women’s ordination should be considered: 46 per cent.

First published in The Age.