The idea of some of Australia's more notorious public dissenters appealing to Rome's doctrinal watchdog over Cardinal Pell's orthodoxy might seem to be in the realm of fantasy.
Yet on 20 February 2006, reports appeared in the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald of a complaint by "a group of leading liberal Catholics" to the Vatican "that Cardinal George Pell is teaching inaccurate and misleading doctrine." The complaint concerned Cardinal Pell's presentations of the Church's position on conscience.
The report in The Age quoted the group's spokesman, Frank Purcell, as accusing the cardinal of fostering an "Eichmann mentality" with people in the Church being not allowed to think for themselves but simply obeying orders. (Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi in charge of exterminating Jews in World War II.)
Mr Purcell went on to accuse Cardinal Pell of trying to keep people at a lower level of moral development by telling them to do what the Church teaches: "He overemphasises the obligation to follow the church absolutely. That's the Eichmann mentality."
The group of 24 "leading liberal Catholics" had sent their letter on 13 November 2005 to American Archbishop (now Cardinal) William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. When no reply was received after three months the group went public.
Among the signatories were such paragons of orthodoxy as Sr Veronica Brady, Dr Paul Collins, Fr Eric Hodgens, a Melbourne priest, Frank Purcell, lecturer in Politics, La Trobe University, and Professor Max Charlesworth. Others included Fr Michael Elligate, Chaplain, University of Melbourne, Fr Frank Martin, a former Director of the Melbourne Catholic Education Office, and Fr Peter Murnane of the Dominican Order.
The letter complained that "In his public statements he [Cardinal Pell] emphasizes the teaching of the church, but fails to acknowledge that this does not completely exhaust the process. Truth must be assimilated into individual lives. He adopts the stance that any doubt or conscientious questioning is tantamount to rejecting the magisterium. He seems to adopt an entirely static notion of truth, and omits all reference to church tradition as a process of coming to truth."
Cardinal Pell's response was typically direct: "This is a real hoot - such well-known defenders of orthodoxy as Paul Collins, Veronica Brady and Max Charlesworth appealing to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"What is in dispute is not the importance of conscience, but whether conscience must be oriented to truth, to the word of God. Truth is supreme and as the encyclical Veritatis Splendor said, conscience is the proximate norm. If an individual's personal conscience is supreme my conscientious viewpoint is as good as the view of this crew, and there is no way of resolving the dispute between us.
"There has never been a traditional Catholic teaching of the primacy of conscience. This was one of the great issues at the Reformation and the word of God remains supreme no matter how uncomfortable this is for the loyal opposition, for Catholic dissenters. A watch or clock is always useful especially when it is telling the correct time."
The bizarre nature of the dissenters' appeal to Rome is evident when one looks at some of their publicly expressed views on the faith.
Sr Veronica Brady, writing in The Age in early 2005, complained that Pope John Paul had "by and large ... reiterated traditional teachings on matters such as contraception, the family, abortion and so on, seemingly without listening to what an increasing number of women may have to say on these issues or taking into account recent developments in the understanding of human sexuality and fertility and the crisis of overpopulation."
But, for her, the worst example of John Paul's "inflexibility" was "his refusal even to contemplate the possibility of the ordination of women."
Frank Purcell has complained in the press on several occasions about the Church's leadership and teachings, e.g., "[A]ll too many difficult moral issues have been declared beyond discussion in the church by a centralised bureaucracy known as the Curia. It seems to believe that the Holy Father has a hot-line to the Holy Spirit and does not need to consult and listen even to bishops, let alone to the faithful."
He criticised the Church's stance on "safe sex" and homosexuality and in 1998, targeted Archbishop Pell's celebration of the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae as doing "little to enhance the credibility and relevance of the Catholic Church."
Paul Collins has written and spoken extensively over the past 25 years taking the Church's leadership and teachings to task, especially in such books as Mixed Blessings and Papal Power - the latter landing him in hot water with the Vatican for its unorthodox views.
Professor Max Charlesworth in turn has commended Papal Power for showing how fear of change has led to "all authority and power in the Church ... now [being] centred in the Pope and the Vatican bureaucracy" with "papalism" now becoming "a threat to the life of the Church itself."
Another of the signatories, Fr Eric Hodgens, offered a series of dissenting views in the January 2005 edition of Online Catholics which were later widely reported in the secular media, e.g., "Most priests are no longer committed to the old taboos on sexuality. Most do not believe that couples living together are doing something very wrong. Most are happy to have homosexual couples living lives of commitment. They find the Roman heavy insistence on these issues obsessive and wonder why."
To judge from the dissidents' views, their beef about conscience is really code for the removal of any Church authority in sexual matters.