Cardinal George Pell’s Book God and Caesar

Growing up Catholic in Melbourne in the 1950s, my parents told me that it would be discourteous to decline a formal invitation from a nun or brother or a priest or bishop. I do not hold all the views that I did then. But when the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney asked me to launch his book God & Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics and Society, I retained enough of my childhood instruction to say – Yes. And so it has come to pass.

I do not agree with everything that George Pell says or writes. However, I very much admire that he has strong views and that he has the courage to state them – even though many are unfashionable in modern Western societies. There is no confusion about the Cardinal’s message – which, no doubt, explains why he has so many loyal fans along with quite a few hostile critics.

God & Caesar is mainly about religion and society. Yet some of the author’s personal views are evident. Including his admiration for John Paul II, such anti-communist Eastern European cardinals as Stefan Wyszinski in Poland and Josef Mindszenty in Hungary, Australia’s Daniel Mannix and the layman B.A. Santamaria – along with St Thomas More and St. Catherine of Siena. He also describes himself as “an old Kennedy groupie” – as in JFK, the first Catholic president of the United States.

In God & Caesar, Dr Pell refutes the claim that Australia is basically a secular country:

….the claim reflects the fact that among academics, journalists and other members of the commentariat the religious situation is roughly the obverse of what it is in the general community. People in these privileged positions mainly mix with people like themselves, and this can cause spectacular errors of judgment.

Little wonder, then, that the Cardinal annoys many members of what is sometimes called the fourth estate – some of whom are atheists while others dislike the fact that he proclaims the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, based in Rome, and refutes any concept based on the primacy of individual conscience.

Earlier this year Greens MP Lee Rhiannon succeeded in having the Cardinal investigated by the New South Wales Parliament’s Privileges Committee for contempt of the parliament. She objected to the fact that Dr Pell had spoken out about the obligations of Catholic MPs in the stem cell debate. It came as no surprise that Ms Rhiannon sought to silence the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. And it came as no surprise that he was cleared by the Privileges Committee.

What was newsworthy turned on the response to this controversy by some Catholic educated journalists, who proclaim the primacy of individual conscience – particularly their own.

On the ABC Radio National The Religion Report program on 13 June, presenter Stephen Crittenden stumped-up not one or even two but three critics to condemn Pell and all his works and all his pomps. A former Catholic priest who once worked as an ABC journalist, a current Anglican priest and a current Catholic priest/academic. They all had an anti-Pell of a time – while Mr Crittenden made a number of (still uncorrected) historical howlers about religion and politics in Australia.

Writing in his self-indulgent column (titled “Indulgence”) on 7 June, Canberra Times columnist Jack Waterford threw the switch to hyperbole, declaring that George Pell:

…is to be seen at fashionable dinner parties with rich lawyers and conservative columnists, condescending to High Court judges’ wives, and no doubt laughing at the complaints by ex-justice Roddy Meagher about a stifling political correctness.

Forget, for the moment, that two members of the High Court never married and that the widower Roddy Meagher never sat on the High Court. Mr Waterford has conceded (in private correspondence) that he has never attended a dinner party with the Cardinal and that he made it all up. So Jack Waterford has no idea whether Dr Pell ever condescended to even one High Court judge’s wife or ever laughed at one Roddy Meagher complaint.

Reading God and Caesar, you get the impression that Cardinal Pell has respect for many agnostics along with contempt for the arrogance of atheists like Richard Dawkins. Committed to knowledge over opinion, the author of God & Caesar has named names – personalities, places, historical events. So it is possible to learn much from reading the book – even if the reader is not committed to the author’s position on religious and/or social matters.

Reading God & Caesar, it is evident that George Pell comes within a fine tradition of Australian Catholicism. Like Cardinal Francis Moran and Archbishop Daniel Mannix, Dr Pell is a progressive on many social issues. As God & Caesar demonstrates, when Archbishop of Sydney Moran opposed anti-Chinese legislation in the 1880s – and denounced French anti-semitism during the Dreyfus affair over a decade later. In the first half of the 20th Century, Mannix opposed the harsh treatment of Germans and Italians in Australia during World War I and World War II respectively and always had a welcoming attitude to immigrants, including those fleeing dictatorships. Dr Pell himself has made a positive contribution to the debate over asylum seekers and refugees.

However, like his high-profile predecessors in Sydney and Melbourne, Dr Pell is a conservative on matters of faith and morals – and a defiant one. God & Caesar contains many tough-minded positions – on the spiritual and the secular alike – in which the author states the Church’s position and criticises its opponents. The author is unequivocal in stating – in chronological order – that:

  • The communist regimes headed by Lenin/Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were atheist – while Hitler’s regime was pagan.
  • The Christian Church should be in some way counter-cultural and should point beyond short-term compassion.
  • There has been a silence about the crimes of communism – as distinct from those of Nazism.
  • As a Catholic, he believes that God created the universe and that Christ is the Son of God. He also now accepts the validity of the term “culture of death” as accurately depicting his opposition to abortion, euthanasia, drug-taking and demographic decline in the Western world.
  • He opposes incoherent relativism – of the “What is important is that you are comfortable with that” genre – along with ideological small “l” liberalism, the “acid rain of modernity” and nihilism.

At the time when some Christian leaders do not believe in God, let alone the Resurrection – while others appear to believe only in humanity induced climate change – Cardinal Pell has an informed position on faith and morals. Agree with him or not, he has views against which we can test our own.

I congratulate Anthony Cappello of Connor Court Publishing for publishing God & Caesar in Australia – along with Michael Casey, Hayden Ramsay and Rob Dennis who are acknowledged in the “Introduction” as having contributed to the essays.

I also congratulate the author, declare God & Caesar well and truly launched and invite Cardinal Pell to address The Sydney Institute.