The appointment of the former Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne (Most Rev G. Pell) to the position of Archbishop, consequent on the retirement of his predecessor, Archbishop Little, because of ill-health, has been widely reported and commented upon by the secular media. Granted the size and the history of the Archdiocese, perhaps this would have been so in any period in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia.
On this occasion, public notice has obviously been occasioned by other factors as well. If it were necessary to establish this point, a London Catholic weekly commented on the appointment thus: "As our correspondent in Sydney reports there was no consultation beforehand," the point being made to show that "the contrast with the practice of the early Church is striking."
It can be stated with confidence that there was consultation, as there always is. The idea that an Archbishop of Melbourne or Sydney would be appointed without general consultation with Bishops, as well as others, lies in the realm of fantasy. All that the paper's Sydney correspondent can report is that he and his associates were not consulted. But why should they be?
The significance of Archbishop Pell's appointment arises from two separate considerations.
The first is, in a sense, accidental, but essentially a consequence of the history of the Catholic Church in Australia.
The public leadership of the Catholic Church in Australia has always come from one or other of the two largest archdioceses - Sydney and Melbourne - a situation which is certain to continue. Quite apart from questions of the new Archbishop's personal and academic distinction, whoever is appointed Archbishop of either See must inevitably play a major role in the future of the Catholic Church in this country.
The second consideration is that Archbishop Pell has been appointed at a time when the Catholic Church throughout the world is in a condition of profound crisis. It is as fully evident in Australia as it is not only in the United States, Britain and other European countries, but in countries like Japan and India as well. Unless properly handled - as many aspects of the Protestant Reformation were not (see Fr H. Jedin's History of the Council of Trent) - the crisis could lead to a schism. An even more serious possibility than schism, referred to recently by the German Protestant theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich, is that, under the general influence of the process of secularisation, erstwhile Catholics will simply give up:
"It is no longer a matter of rejecting Christian teachings," wrote Pannenberg. "Large numbers of people have not the vaguest knowledge of what those teachings are. This is a remarkable development when one considers how foundational Christianity is to the entire story of Western culture. The more widespread the ignorance of Christianity, the greater the prejudice against Christianity" (First Things, June/July 1996).
For both reasons, what the new Archbishop says and does will inevitably be profoundly germane to that issue.
Although the widely publicised cases of clerical paedophilia have come as a shock, they do not even remotely constitute the central issue. Disgusting and abhorrent as they are, especially when the actions of a relative few have all but destroyed the confidence which Catholics had in their priests and bishops, the great majority of whom were and remain faithful to their principles, they do not rank with the major crisis.
That crisis has two aspects.
The first relates to the attitude of the increasing number of Catholics, under the influence of progressivist priests, to the outer limits of the doctrines and moral teachings of the Catholic Church. A person who cannot believe established Catholic doctrines should not adhere to the Church which teaches them. That is the only sense in which the small group of French Catholics who, in protest against the Pope, have asked that their names be wiped off the baptismal registry, are right. The new Archbishop's publicly expressed position is that such a central core of beliefs does exist, that he has no authority to depart from it, and that he has a responsibility to protect, defend and propagate it. However differently expressed, this was also the view of his predecessor.
The second aspect of the crisis lies in the dispute over where final authority really lies, and the ways in which that final authority may be exerted. The Church's teaching has always been that final authority resides in the solemn teachings of a General Council, but only with the Pope as its head, or of the Pope acting alone, as descendant of St Peter. This is the direct teaching of the two most recent General Councils, although its origins lie centuries back in the history of the early Church. As he has stated in the media, the new Archbishop's view is that he has no authority to depart from that position either.
There is only one sensible reason for being a Catholic. It is that one sincerely accepts the claim of the Catholic Church to be the Church founded by Jesus Christ to convey his message to the world, and that, in matters of faith and morals, one accepts the ultimate authority of the Bishop of Rome. The arguments against that proposition are strong. They should not be taken lightly. But despite all the scandals, on the balance of evidence, the Catholic claim - for which Thomas More was prepared to die - is stronger.
This claim covers the field of morals as well as of doctrine. Morals concern much wider areas than sexual morality, but that is where most arguments are found today. However difficult Christ's teachings may be to practise, and however often the individual Catholic breaks down personally, as we all do, there is no doubt that the Church faithfully reflects Christ's teachings when it states that sex outside marriage, remarriage after divorce, homosexual practices and so on, were precluded by Christ himself. Without abandoning what Christ taught, the Church cannot alter that teaching simply because of modern fashions and modem obsessions. It is not the fact that we break down which creates the major issue. That is why the Sacrament of Penance exists. The issue arises only when we deny that what Christ or the Church clearly taught has binding force.
To the defence of these two positions, Archbishop Pell brings his intellectual and moral equipment. Because he is so well equipped, he will be a force. Inevitably there will be some within the Church opposed to his position. Some of them are well organised. One can only hope that he will convince them and win them, but most of all, that he will prevail.