‘Boots-and-all’ style of Catholicism to roll on after Pell’s death – The Age


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The pugilistic style of Cardinal George Pell has put a lasting conservative imprint on the Catholic church in Australia and one Archbishop says his death will make no difference to the way the church operates.
Pell’s grip on the Australian Catholic Church loosened when he moved to Rome in 2014 but Dr Joel Hodge, a senior lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University, said he continued to wield some influence over the archbishops of Melbourne and Sydney.
Then-archbishop George Pell during Christmas Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1997. Credit:Ray Kennedy
Pell was a “big vision man” who wanted to retain new members, Hodge said, but his pugilistic approach alienated many liberal-leaning Catholics. As with all major religions in Australia, its flock is declining: at the 2021 census, 20 per cent of Australians identified as Catholic, down from 22.6 per cent five years earlier.
Hodge said Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli and his Sydney counterpart, Anthony Fisher, were both very close to Pell and would continue his legacy of holding firmly to the church’s teachings, but that they would do so via a leadership style that reflected “Pope Francis’ emphasis on pastoral engagement”.
As for the younger crop of priests, Hodge said they tended to be conservative because of the long-embedded culture of the seminary.
“Cardinal Pell was identified more on the conservative side, but I think it’s important to understand that Catholic social teaching has a wide range and cuts across traditional right-left ideology,” Hodge said. Australia’s traditionalists see the Church’s teachings as unalterable, “but at the same time they’ll be pastoral.”
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe said Pell “had an enormous influence” on two of the biggest dioceses in Australia, Melbourne and Sydney, during his tenures as archbishop.
He severed formal ties when Pope Francis handpicked him to serve as treasurer or the Vatican and one of nine advisers on the Council of Cardinals to the Pope in 2014.
“When he was transferred to Rome, he played no formal or official role,” Costelloe said.
“The [current] bishops work collaboratively well together, we share a common vision on many things … and Cardinal Pell’s death won’t make any difference to the way we operate.”
Costelloe said the power balance in a church hierarchy did not mirror that of the business or political worlds, and when archbishops retired, they moved on and vacated the space for their successors.
Paul Collins, a Catholic Church historian and former priest, said he did not believe Pell’s influence would linger for years and that his death would accelerate the decline of the “Pell view of the church”.
He said the cardinal’s death was unlikely to cause a huge shift in the Australian Catholic landscape, given that change had been gradually occurring since the 2012 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“Pell’s vision of the church was a kind of fortress of capital ‘T’ truth, a place that had all the answers, and his kind of approach was a fairly boots-and-all kind of Catholicism, whereby he certainly wasn’t going to take secular society seriously,” Collins said.
“The men he appointed [Fisher and Comensoli] don’t fit into that pattern, but they have some sympathy that the church is a divine institution and doesn’t have a whole lot to learn from the world. That’s a blinkered view.”
Pell has been a divisive figure both in Australia and internationally, but his legacy has been tarnished by a royal commission finding in 2020 that he had known of children being sexually abused within the archdiocese of Ballarat in the 1970s and that criticised him for not doing more to have paedophile priests removed from the church.
The late cardinal was a polarising figure due to his outspoken opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and his refusal to administer Holy Communion to openly gay and lesbian parishioners.
Costelloe said Pell’s death would stir painful memories for victims of clergy abuse.
“The cardinal’s death will bring a lot of these things to the surface for many people, and I hope everyone will continue to be aware of that, and we don’t do or say anything that makes it worse,” he said.
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