Cardinal George Pell
"WYD Madrid 2011" by Catholic Church (England and Wales) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now that the dust has settled, it is salutary to examine the range of responses to the death of the late Cardinal George Pell. 

On the one hand he attracted (deservedly in my view) the kind of veneration that is duly paid to a hero of the Faith, a Saint of the Church, a bold but gentle soul who suffered bloodless martyrdom and prayed for his persecutors.

On the other hand, he was pursued to the grave by the most vicious abuse and savage detestation imaginable. 

How is it possible that a man who had so many loving friends and admirers could attract such loathing?  Can we write it off as just another case of quot homines tot sententiae, a mere difference of opinion, one man’s meat being another man’s poison?  Or is there something else going on here? 

A sign of contradiction

To answer this question, we must look closely at the values (for want of a better word) that are either prized or neglected by our society.  It doesn’t take long to come across some surprising, even bizarre, inconsistencies.  Here’s one: everybody agrees that human life is precious.  But do we? There are a lot of exemptions: unborn human life is not human at all, in the opinion apparently of half the population, and the mortal sufferings of born children in poor and underprivileged portions of the world just can’t seem to hold our attention when we’re preoccupied by more pressing concerns such as sexuality and identity. 

This is where Cardinal Pell comes into conflict with the world at large.  He doesn’t believe in exemptions.  All human life, he thinks, is precious and there are no exceptions.  The worst kind of child abuse, he would say, was the slaying of the unborn child.  The sexual abuse of children is appalling — he was one of the first bishops to take an active part in exposing and punishing predators — but he thought that killing them is even worse.

This is not something modern secularists want to hear.  Nothing could have been better calculated to offend the neo-pagan world.  So many of us have had some association with abortion: we’ve known poor women who dread having another mouth to feed; or bullied women who fear the anger of their parents or their boyfriends and lovers; or women who are victims of incest or rape; or women (and their partners) who cannot face bringing up a severely handicapped baby. All those who terminate a child are under pressure of some kind.  Those who succumb to that sort of pressure deserve our sympathy and our prayers, for God alone is their judge. 

Mothers who agree, under whatever forms of constraint, to the termination of a child are often assailed by profound feelings of sorrow and guilt.  But many others are buoyed up by the weasel words of those who deny the humanity of the unborn.  It must come as a relief and feel like a blessing to be told that the wicked deed you thought you’d done was not wicked at all, but a responsible act of self-control, a simple matter of “women’s health“.  Thus there are two contrasting groups in existence here: those who are sorry for something they did, and those who justify and even boast of it. 

The assertiveness of this second group largely explains why so many people express a visceral loathing of paedophilia that appears out of all proportion to their reaction to other forms of child abuse. You can’t really fool yourself: if you deny your own guilt, you’ve got to find someone else to blame for something.

We know that millions of children die every year of hunger and unsanitary water. We know that many of the world’s 40 million slaves are children. We know that late-term abortion is nothing other than infanticide, and that it is done with great cruelty.  We know (if we trouble to look) that in several jurisdictions abortion is permitted up to natural birth, and that babies who somehow survive are not resuscitated but left to die.  All these things can be overlooked or explained away, but there has to be something left for us to moralise over, to express self-righteous anger.  Somebody must be blamed. 

The killing of unwanted children, either before or after birth, has always been regarded as evil not only by the Christian church but by other Faiths as well.  Even pagans saw it as contrary to the ‘natural law’, which is why in the ancient world unwanted babies were exposed, or left to die.  Their excuse for this was a sort of theological fiction: that it was better to leave them to the gods to save, if they wanted them, than to directly kill them.

Sexual revolutionaries

Another area in which Pell came into conflict with the secular world has to do with sexuality.  Whether or not you blame The Pill, or the spirit of easy-going tolerance (‘let it all hang out!’) that erupted everywhere in the climacteric 60s, sexuality has now become a quagmire. Here we are bogged down in more of those bizarre inconsistencies in human values referred to above. Humans are just one species of animal and all animals should have rights, says the secular world, yet you won’t find ‘non-binaries’ in the farm yard or the kennel.

You wouldn’t ever have called Pell a markedly diplomatic man — he wasn’t one for weasel words and easy feel-good platitudes — so he had little patience with the more extravagant claims of the gay lobby for recognition.  I think he was probably supportive of civil unions (or at least of lifting any remaining legal disabilities), but he was certainly opposed to the notion of same-sex marriage, and the idea that governments can actually change the meaning of words.

Such opposition is not forgiven, particularly when it comes from someone who has attained icon status as a key religious conservative. The truth is that Pell made people feel guilty about abortion and sex. He was in every sense a big man, and his just being there was an affront to the sensitivities of many. People hate feeling guilty, they want to be free of it and they write guilt off as a foolish Christian obsession. But guilt is one of the touchstones of Christianity.

I recall the Revd John Smith (died 2019), the so-called “Bikie Pastor” and founder of the God Squad, defining guilt as “the nerve endings of the soul”. To him, feeling guilt was not the weakness of Christianity but its strength. Guilt is the recognition that we have responsibilities, that other people matter, that we can always do more.

David Daintree is Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, in Hobart, Tasmania.