The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, is one of the leading Catholic voices in the English-speaking world. He has just published a collection of 80 homilies, speeches and pastoral letters, Test Everything: Hold fast to what is good. MercatorNet asked him about the future of Christianity in a time of tension and anxiety.
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You gave one of your most powerful homilies at the beginning of World Youth Day in Sydney. You used the Biblical image of dry bones clattering together, coming alive. Christianity today looks a lot like dry bones, in many ways. What signs do you see of spiritual renewal?
In most parts of the world and even most parts of Australia I do not think the Catholic community looks like dead bones. We are under considerable pressure. There is a continuing, very slow decline of practice, probably slower in the Sydney Archdiocese than nearly any other part in Australia.
But there are many initiatives. I am particularly pleased with the progress we are making in our Catholic schools. We are building on the To Know Worship and Love program of religious education which has been in use now seven or eight years, and recently there has been an appointment of youth ministry or faith development co-ordinator in each secondary school.
So we have had a welcome turn-around. At the recent launch of my Pentecost Statement at the Catholic Church at Liverpool, probably more young people there came from school-based groups rather than parish groups. That is a bit of a change. The popularity of silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament initially came as a surprise. On reflection, of course, the absence of silence in the life of so many of our young people probably indicates that this act of silent worship is very appropriate and much needed by them.
Wherever the figure of Christ is presented to young people, a goodly percentage of them respond, and respond favourably, to the call to repent and turn their hearts. Unfortunately in some cases people work hard to avoid mentioning Christ. They talk about the environment, social justice, possibly life issues, the role of women, global warming, the poor overseas, anything except Christ’s call to repentance and conversion. That has got to be central, and when it is central we make some significant progress.
The sex abuse scandal has been dragging on for some time and undoubtedly there is more to come. Do you think that the Catholic Church can ever recover from this crisis?
There is no doubt the Church, and its moral authority, have been damaged and this wound is being exploited by the enemies of the Church. But life goes on. We are called to repentance and renewal.
It is certainly not a crisis equal, for example, to the French Revolution, or the rise of Communism or Nazism, or World War I or World War II. It varies in intensity even in different places in Australia, in different countries. Right across the nation we have had good procedures in place since 1996.
The first and most important element is to face up to the truth and do what we can for those who have suffered, the victims. Then we have to have procedures in place to deal with crimes and abuse. We are certainly heading in the right direction in this country. We have faced up to, and are facing up to, this terrible and wounding challenge.
You seem very impressed by the Fatherhood of God in Christianity. Does that give it an edge on Islam?
Christianity, Catholicism in particular, has an edge on Islam. I am tempted to say: in every way. Islam is a regression, culturally as well as religiously. I do not think it compares in any significant way with Christianity. I say that because there is much less about love in the Koran than there is in the writings about Christ in the Gospels and the New Testament.
Islam is fundamentally handicapped because it does not recognise the divinity of Christ. The Incarnation is an immense advantage. In Christ, God came down to our level. So when we see Christ teaching and acting, we have an insight into God himself. Another point is that while Christians certainly endorse and explain and emphasise the differences between men and women, we believe in a fundamental equality between men and women in God’s eyes according to the teachings of Christianity. That is very different in Islam.
Secular states, you argue, subtly discourage discussion of ultimate questions. Does that give Christianity an opening?
Christianity has openings in every society but we have particular opportunities today in Australia that possibly were not there to such an extent 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The old denominational rivalries have almost completely disappeared. That means that good Christians in the other churches and denominations will often listen to what we have to say. The fundamental tension now is between the Judaeo-Christian point of view and the secular irreligious point of view.
There is plenty of suffering in our prosperous society, sickness, often psychological sickness, sadness, and death, which the permissive society brings with it. Pope John Paul II was right to describe our way of life, when it goes wrong, as representing a culture of death. We believe in life and love and if we practice what we preach, people will be more inclined to listen to what we have to say. As society becomes more chaotic, with a higher percentage of people wounded and sad, this must increase the opportunities for the Church to reach out to teach and help and heal.
What is the point of teaching doctrines which most Catholics, let alone others, will reject – like bans on divorce and contraception?
Christ himself was rejected. We do not do focus polling to find out which Christian teachings are popular and acceptable across the community and then only teach them. The Cross is a sign of contradiction and there is a significant element in Catholic teaching which contradicts many human desires and accepted practices. The reflexes of our society are still heavily influenced by Christianity, so calls to faith and hope and love in many ways are congenial to Australian society, as is our call for social justice.
In morals, as well as in coping with human weakness, we have the wonderful Christian teaching on forgiveness. If there are blind spots in society, one of the roles of the Church is to point those out. In our pansexual and permissive society there are many blind spots around marriage and family and sexuality and life. The Church is called to throw Christian light on these murky situations.
Young people, including Catholics, seem allergic to commitment. In a post-modern world, is that going to change?
That is part of the story but it is not the whole story. Undoubtedly people are encouraged to keep their options open. It is closely connected with the spread and the availability of education to more and more people, the reluctance to marry early, delaying childbearing, so as not to curtail careers. The whole western way of life is based upon individualism and that can quickly degenerate into old-fashioned selfishness.
At World Youth Day I said that one commitment is worth a thousand options, and we need to say that regularly to our young people, and show them adults who opt for the good and the true and the beautiful, and stick with those options.
The Trinity and the Redemption are comforting Christian doctrines, but there doesn’t seem to be much need for them in a comfortable society like Australia. How can you expect people to connect with them?
Well the Redemption is not difficult to explain. Nearly everybody, once they have reached a certain level of maturity, recognises that even in our prosperous and wonderful society there is plenty of sadness and sickness. All is not well in the world. It never was. There is a flaw that runs through our hearts and right through society. The defect is not just in the structures of society. It is in the human heart. In other words, we need to be redeemed. The particular Christian teaching that redemption is offered to us through the suffering death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is as provocative and remarkable as it ever was.
There is a confused and often incoherent yearning for transcendence, especially in our young people. Not in all of them, of course, but it is shown not just in the popularity of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, of silent adoration, but also in the way even semi-religious young Catholics are pleased to be at what they might call a good Mass, one that is well put together. There is also this search among the New Age alternatives, all sorts of forms of superstition, and people there are looking for something beyond the ordinary.
Whatever the future might be it will not be full of agnostics, or scientific and arid non-believers. The alternative to genuine and beautiful religion, as exemplified in Catholicism at its best, is a rampant superstition and often a superstition which is not conducive to health or well-being or justice at all.
The Victorian era was a lot like ours – theological dissent, disputes between science and faith, aggressive atheism and so on. Yet it was also the age of notable converts like Newman. Does Catholicism attract converts today?
The situation has moved on a lot from the Victorian age which saw deep hostility between the Christian denominations. That is no longer present. Amongst the minority of highly educated scientists and thinkers in the Victorian era, many of them were very confident that they would see the demise of religion in a generation or so. That has not happened and nobody is claiming it will happen now.
Undoubtedly in many parts of Europe religion is in decline, Christianity is in decline. That is not true in the United States. I do not think it is as bad in most parts of Australia. What is different from the Victorian age is the resurgence of a militant and a fundamentalist Islam, and the rise of terrorism. There are some secularist views which use this form of religion to attack all religions. Our task is to point out that religions are very different and that the fruits of genuine Christianity and Catholicism are very different from the fruits of even mainstream Islam, not to mention the radical difference between Christianity and the Islamist terrorists.
We do have some important converts here in Australia. I think of Les Murray the poet. Even percentage-wise we are not receiving as many intellectual converts as in the United States, although there is a small but steady stream here in Australia.
Many of our converts are coming from the Australian-Chinese, the Australian-Vietnamese, and those from Asian backgrounds; dozens and dozens and dozens such people are coming in every year. We also have a small, silent, and unpublicized stream of converts from Islam. Often they have to keep this quiet for their own peace or for the peace and security of their relatives at home.
But genuine Catholicism, when it is believed and lived, and especially when there are traditions of service, always attracts converts. That means, of course, we have to have people in the public square explaining the advantages of knowing the one true God and following Christ his Son.
George Pell became Catholic Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. Apart from his ecclesiastical qualifications, he has a Masters degree in education from Monash University in Melbourne and a PhD in Church History from Oxford University. In 2008 he was the host of World Youth Day in Sydney.