AD2000 interviews Cardinal Pell

AD2000 interviews Cardinal Pell

Cardinal George Pell

An opinion piece by former Director of the Melbourne Catholic Education Office, Fr Frank Martin, was published in the large circulation 'Sunday Herald Sun' on 18 June 2006. The article, which was prominently positioned in the paper's editorial section, expressed dissent from several important Church teachings along with criticisms of Cardinal George Pell. 'AD2000' sought Cardinal Pell's responses to these in the following interview.

AD2000: Fr Martin's opinion piece "How the Church got it so wrong" in the Sunday Herald Sun appeared on 18 June. When did you see it?

Cardinal Pell: Usually the grapevine between Melbourne and Sydney works fairly quickly, but in this case it was a couple of weeks before a friend sent me the cuttings of his article and I have also been away overseas.

Fr Martin and I had been neighbours for nine years when I was parish priest of Mentone. I had dined happily at his presbytery on a number of occasions. Therefore it was a surprise to read in an interview celebrating fifty years of priesthood his attack on myself, the Pope (unnamed) and a number of important Catholic teachings.

Why did you decide to give this interview, to answer these questions?

Normally I am reluctant to comment publicly on issues in other dioceses, and this is doubly so when my old Archdiocese of Melbourne is concerned. However there are a number of reasons why I have decided to speak, beyond the fact that a person attacked has the right of reply.

First of all the doctrinal errors which Fr Martin publicly supports are not local and secondary issues. He would like to portray them as permissible but divergent views in one happy family; or perhaps as merely personal differences between himself and his friends on the one hand and the Pope (or Popes) and myself on the other. They are no such things.

Fr Martin has contradicted three public and important teachings of the Catholic Church, two of which go back directly to the New Testament. Moreover he seems to imply that he has taught like this for years. This is unacceptable.

A favourite tactic of dissenters is to try to claim the centre ground; to make it appear that they constitute the moderate mainstream of the Church even when they are denying Catholic doctrines. Authority is painted as oppressive. Fr Richard McBrien, the US theologian, is an old hand at this, and the English Catholic magazine The Tablet sometimes runs this line too, if more subtly.

To leave Fr Martin unanswered would risk giving the impression that his views are part of an acceptable spectrum. This is not so. They are imprudent dissent.

However Fr Martin's views are also important because they reveal what lies at the centre of continuing disputes about the relationship of truth and conscience; disputes about the primacy of truth or the primacy of conscience.

These are the reasons why I decided to speak. They are more important than the secondary breaches of protocol involved in a priest on the verge of retirement criticising a Pope, as well as a distant cardinal in a diocese in another state.

How is Fr Martin's public dissent relevant to the controversy about the proper role of conscience for a follower of Christ and a member of the Catholic Church?

On 13 November 2005, 24 "liberal" Catholics, most of them unknown to the public, wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith complaining that I was "teaching inaccurate and misleading doctrine" on the topic of conscience, "not true to the Catholic tradition".

The spokesman Frank Purcell, a former priest, was extravagantly muddled in his claims, invented and misstated elements in my writings and even compared me to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of exterminating the Jews in World War II.

Paul Collins, another former priest, was marginally less hyperbolic in claiming I wanted to turn "Catholic teaching into a kind of dictatorship whereby we have no moral conscience whatsoever". However he did recognise that the point at issue is whether an individual's conscience is the ultimate moral norm of behaviour.

Fr Martin was a signatory of this November 2005 letter and his recent public dissent demonstrates what is at stake in the debates about conscience.

If individual conscience had primacy and was able to have the last word, then right and wrong can be redefined and people can be encouraged to sin without guilt, or even awareness. A faulty notion of conscience would enable them to pick and choose far beyond Fr Martin's dissent on contraception, homosexual activity and women priests.

There are other Catholics who invoke conscience to claim that abortion is sometimes permissible, that homosexual marriage and euthanasia are Christian options, and that the divorced and remarried without an annulment can regularly receive Communion. The list can and does go on.

But wasn't Jesus tolerant of human weakness and didn't he dine with prostitutes and crooked tax collectors?

Our Lord certainly understood people in their weakness and he did eat with sinners. But he called them to repentance and a change of heart. He didn't urge them to continue in their bad habits.

"Neither do I condemn you" said Jesus to the woman accused of adultery. "Go away and from this moment sin no more" (John 8:11).

Christ gave the Church the power to bind and to loose (Mt 18:18). He never predicted that his teachings would be universally popular, explicitly recognising he would be a source of dissension (Mt 10:34-6).

Neither did he come to abolish the Law in the name of conscience or in any other way. "Anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 5:19).

My conscience, my understanding of Christian teaching, would not allow me to teach as Fr Martin teaches. "Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them", Jesus said. (Mt 5:17).

So you are not trying to abolish the exercise of conscience, to deny its importance?

Not at all. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Book 3: Chapter 1: Article 6) has a beautiful section on conscience quoting Cardinal Newman: "[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ" (par 1778).

When a conscience is formed and informed, when there is moral certainty, a person must always obey its certain judgement, but a conscience can be ignorant and in error and such ignorance and error are not always free of guilt. These are my views too.

The debate about conscience is not remote and academic, but has enormous consequences for our daily living and for our salvation.

Do you refuse to give Communion to homosexual Catholics?

The position Fr Martin ascribes to the Church and myself is quite misleading.

A person's sexual orientation is morally irrelevant. A person regularly bedevilled by some of the worst temptations, e.g., to murder, can receive Communion provided he is not committing murder. A murderer can also receive if he has genuinely repented and confessed his sin.

0The Church has never decreed that Catholics with same sex attraction could not receive Holy Communion (provided they are in the state of grace), but it is true that all unrepentant serious sinners, including fornicators and adulterers, should not present themselves for Communion.

Do you agree with Fr Martin's view that the Church has too much power and control?

The biggest surprise for me in his outburst was his claim that I am "about power and control". This was from a man who had been regularly polite to my face for years and whom I had not seen for five years!

It was also a bit rich coming from a priest who ran a very tight ship as Director of the Victorian Catholic Education Office and who now claims that he had publicly contradicted Church teaching for years; and who still remains in place.

Fr Martin also wants more realism from Church leaders and football banned on Sundays! An interesting type of consistency.

I believe Archbishop Hart will be too wise to give Fr Martin a new lease of life and publicity by dismissing him at this stage. And I agree with this.

But as a bishop for nearly 20 years I suspect that history will judge us, the Australian Bishops of the last 40 years, as being more guilty of a reluctance to grasp nettles and exercise authority, rather than any regular authoritarianism.

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