Pell’s conservatism adds fuel to the fire of Catholic disharmony

Sydney Morning Herald, August 3, 2004

Australian Catholics are at odds over how to practise their faith in the modern world, writes Paul Collins.

Cardinal George Pell has trouble on his hands in inner Sydney. Yesterday a leading conservative priest, Father Terence Purcell, of St Benedict’s parish Broadway, was protesting because the Cardinal wants to turn his disused school building into a campus for Notre Dame University, which Pell wants to import from Fremantle.

One wonders why Notre Dame has to come to Sydney when the Australian Catholic University has campuses in North Sydney and Strathfield.

Pell has also been a leading light in the foundation of Campion College, a liberal arts-theology faculty to be established soon in Parramatta diocese.

Also there is the Catholic Institute of Sydney, which specialises in theology. That will mean four Catholic universities in greater Sydney, which is surely enough for anyone.

Yesterday Purcell claimed that his inner-city parish was "up in arms" about the changes ushered in by Pell. But his is not the only one. In Redfern there is a struggle going on for the soul of St Vincent’s parish. The community there was revolutionised when Father Ted Kennedy arrived in the 1970s. He developed it into a welcoming haven for Aborigines and other marginalised people. It is now largely run by lay people, who provide and support a range of needed social services.

The church building is the heart of the Redfern community, and until now Aboriginal and white parishioners have had some influence over how St Vincent’s operates. Many Catholics come there because they feel involved in a Sunday Mass that gives expression to their commitment to the church. They have a sense of owning the parish.

All of this is changing, however. Kennedy is ill. Pell has handed the parish over to a group called the Neo-Catechuminate, Neo-Cats for short, two of whose priests recently arrived in the parish.

Their vision of ministry is very different from Kennedy’s. They see the church building as the place for Mass and worship, not for welfare activities or discussion groups. Neo-Cats believe that most Catholics are merely nominal, un-churched, in need of long formation within a closed group. Articulate, non-Neo-Cat laity need to be kept in their place.

The new arrivals have been accused of being culturally insensitive to Aborigines. To put it mildly, there is tension at St Vincent’s.

Yet Redfern is a microcosm of what is happening right across Australian Catholicism and within theology. Two different visions of what it means to be Catholic have emerged. The key questions are about how the church should respond to contemporary society and deal with religious difference.

Many Catholics think the church as a whole should adopt something like the Kennedy-Redfern model, open to the secular world, talking to it, finding areas where people of goodwill can co-operate to improve society.

Sure, Catholicism should critique what is wrong with society, but never in a way that alienates. Genuine Catholicity is the antithesis of sectarianism.

Pell has articulated a different view. He believes the church should be more confrontational in tackling secular values and asserting absolute truth. He says one of the functions of a bishop is to try to ensure that the fullness of Catholic faith is taught, that it has been a temptation for 20 years or more to try to improve the situation of the church by going silent on some aspects or underplaying other challenges.

In a recent lecture he was critical of Catholics who want to make the church more "acceptable" to the spirit of the age, especially those who use the enabling mechanism of the primacy of conscience. By this he means that some Catholics use the doctrine of freedom of conscience to espouse secular values and to pick and choose what they believe.

Many feel his approach is problematic, and whether everything he presents as Catholic doctrine is indeed that is debatable.

Some Catholics have spent years initiating dialogue with society by presenting belief in reasonable terms, looking for agreements, making faith part of mainstream discussion. But along comes Pell, boots and all, saying that Catholics need a style a mite more confrontational and certainly less conciliatory towards secular values.

The cross is a sign of contradiction.

Sure, but it is also a sign of the vulnerability of God, of redemption, of Jesus’ life poured out for others.

Pell now has multiple groups of Catholics off-side, from the traditionalist Purcell to the theologically progressive Redfern community. Clergy from across the Catholic spectrum are also dissatisfied with Pell’s approach.

But the Cardinal’s trump card is that the theological divisions are so deep that it is unlikely that Catholics will get together and co-operate to resolve disputes more amicably.

Which is a pity because Catholics do need to find some common ground to begin to talk to each other again, as well as to talk to the wider Australian society. The boots-and-all approach never really works.

Paul Collins’s most recent book is Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today (ABC Books).


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