Grounds for optimism


By Archbishop George Pell

By working to protect and present to our world the core of Catholicism, the tradition, written and unwritten, bequeathed to us by Jesus and the Apostles, we acknowledge that these are substantive matters. ARCHBISHOP GEORGE PELL of Sydney looks at the Catholic Church since Vatican II and shares his optimism with us.

THE Second Vatican Council was the largest restructuring in Catholic history for at least 400 years, since the Council of Trent 1545-1563 responded to the challenge of Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Indeed there are not too many useful parallels even in the fifteen hundred years before the Council of 'Dent.

Vatican II was also followed by a dramatic downsizing in some western countries such as Holland, and French-speaking Canada, a collapse of faith and practice which was also unequalled for hundreds of years; in fact the immediate parallels are the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 or the exodus into Protestantism in the sixteenth century.

The Second Vatican Council was a momentous event in Church life changing Catholic life in Australia irreversibly. None of us would want to go back completely to Catholic life as it was before the Second Vatican Council. Its reforms in many cases are now taken for granted and young Catholics often imagine that life in the Church was always like this. In fact the Second Vatican Council would probably rank in their subconscious, if not their unconscious, with the Council of Trent. The Council was also followed in Australia by all sorts of unplanned and unanticipated events. On the negative side these include the departure of many priests and religious, the collapse in vocations, the decline in Church going and the spread of doctrinal and moral confusion. Many positive developments were planned (and I will touch on those later) and achieved but a couple of unplanned positive developments are the rise of the charismatic movements and the growth of the so called New Movements such as the Emmanuel Community or the Neocatechumenal Way.

1962-1965 the Years of the
Second Vatican Council

The Bishop of Ballarat, Dr. James Patrick O'Collins sent me to study theology in Rome in September 1963. Therefore I was not in Rome for the funeral of Pope John XXIII nor for the enthronement of Pope Paul VI. Obviously too I missed the first session of the Council but I was there as a student for the last three sessions, being present in St. Peter's Square for the closing ceremony and being smuggled in on one day to help the clerical assistants during an actual session of the Council.

Many of the Australian Bishops had thought that the Council would be over in a few months, after adopting a few house-keeping measures. There was almost no public pressure in Australia beforehand for a great reforming Council and this was true of Catholic opinion throughout most of the world and certainly the English speaking world.

The Council was an exciting time. Pope John XXIII in his opening address had spoken against the prophets of doom and of the need to express the ancient truths in new ways. During the first session some of schemata prepared by the Roman Curia were rejected. There was a mounting enthusiasm for change, fanned by effective use of secular and religious press. There was then a large group of significant and important theologians most of them from Northern or Central Europe. Such names include Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl and Hugo Rahner, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou. The last three were to become Cardinals and the first two were eventually censured by the Church. One of the later books-about the Second Vatican Council was headed 'The Rhine flows into the Tiber'.

Seek first the kingdom of heaven

IN like manner, the other pains and hardships of life will have no end or cessation on earth; for the consequences of sin are bitter and hard to bear, and they must accompany man so long as life lasts. To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity; let them strive as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it. If any there are who pretend differently who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose, and constant enjoyment they delude the people and impose upon them; and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present. Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere, as We have said, for the solace to its troubles.

- Pope Leo XIII, [1810-1903], Rerum Novarum [On Capital and Labor], 1891.

Naïve young students like myself expected a new Pentecost. Catholic confidence was high with the first Catholic President of the United States, John F. Kennedy (we knew nothing then about his personal weaknesses) and the leaders of France and West Germany, General De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer were both practising Catholics. The Cuban crisis had been successfully surmounted. Vietnam had not yet been lost and student unrest and rebellion would not culminate until the student revolutions of 1968, which nearly brought down the French Government. De Gaulle only remained in power with the help of the Communists.

This optimism quickly turned sour. Pope Paul VI's 1968 ruling which reaffirmed the traditional Church opposition to artificial contraception provoked massive public dissent, whose consequences we are still experiencing. Ironically Pope Paul's affirmation of the unitive and procreative goals of marriage set the scene for Pope John Paul II's theology of the body which speaks so powerfully to young adults today. Incidentally most of the students from Australia and New Zealand who were studying with me in Rome for the priesthood, a highly talented group of men, either chose not to be ordained or left the priesthood after ordination. The percentage who still remained would probably be less than 10%. For some of my friends an enthusiasm for reform turned into a radical dissatisfaction with the status quo, a disdain for the past and a sense of superiority towards those old fashioned people attached to older ways. It was the first indication to me that the way forward might not be as straight forward or pleasant as I had expected.

The Achievements of

The achievements of Vatican II are of course contained in the Conciliar Decrees, inspired by the two basic motifs of 1) a return to the sources i.e. Scripture and Tradition, 'resourcement' and 2) 'aggiornamento' an Italian word meaning to bring things up to date.

For the first time a Council spoke about the role of the Church in the world and urged all Catholics to dialogue, not anathematize developments around them. It urged them to engage with the world rather than to retire into a ghetto. In retrospect this now seems to reflect an excessive optimism and over confidence. Practising Christians are everywhere in a minority, and in the English-speaking world baptised Catholics are also in a minority. We are regularly swamped and battered by the consumer society in which we live.

One of the most important developments to follow from the Council was the development of the Catholic participation in Ecumenism, a social benefit in Australia as well as something that is doctrinally essential for the different followers of Jesus Christ. Friendship and co-operation are far preferable to the hatred and violence of e.g. Northern Ireland. The Council also urged regular dialogue and good relations with the other great religious traditions, an approach which is now under new pressures with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The Declaration on Religious Liberty, which espoused the view that the State cannot compel people to follow Catholic truth; which recognises people's civic rights to choose the truth as they see it, was also a significant development. The consequences of this civic doctrine are also now being wrestled with within Church life.

The most immediate consequence to follow from the Council was the introduction of the celebration of the Sacraments in the vernacular languages, rather than Latin, something the Council itself never decreed and which Pope John XXIII did not foresee.

Often the major achievement of the Council is described as the doctrine of the collegiality of bishops, the explicit recognition that as successors of the apostles bishops share leadership of the universal Church, with and under the Pope, the successor of St. Peter. The Council immensely strengthened the position of the Bishops and had the consequence of internationalising the Roman Curia. Nearly all the cardinals leading the Roman Curia now have many years of pastoral experience in their home dioceses. Unfortunately there was not a corresponding development in the theology of the ministerial priesthood.

Christianity and

IT'S [Islam's] culture (is) not one of translation but of assimilation. This is a point which Lamin Sanneh has made effectively in his much-discussed work Translating the Message but, interestingly, it was made already by an observant Arab in the sixteenth century who became a Christian and a monk of Dabra Libanos in Ethiopia. Enbaqom wrote his Anqasa Amin, 'The Door of the Faith', in 1540 during the Jihad of Gran. It was an apologetic work comparing Islam and Christianity to prove the superiority of the latter and one of his most interesting arguments was that the Qur'an is the book of a single language, Arabic, while the Bible exists in twenty languages and he cites many of them to prove that Christianity can be at home anywhere. Enbaqom put his finger on a quite crucial divergence between the two religions. The Muslim attitude to the Qur'an made translation almost impossible. For the religious person it has to be read, recited out loud five times a day, or listened to in Arabic. In consequence the whole cultural impact of Islam is necessarily to Arabise, to draw peoples into a single world community of language and government. And this is what it did. Even the language of Egypt disappeared before it, except as a Christian liturgical language. Nations are not constructed by Islam but deconstructed. That is a fact of history but it is a fact dependent upon theology. Recognition of it should make it all the clearer that the construction of nations within the Christian world was not something independent of Christianity but, rather, something simulated by the Christian attitude both to language and to the state.

- Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Another important but under-noted development was the espousal of the role of the laity, of the rights and responsibilities that follow from baptism. This was first apparent in the order of chapters in 'Lumen Gentium', the constitution on the nature of the Church where the dignity and role of all the baptised was discussed before that of the clergy. Here the Council has been followed by wonderful but perhaps unexpected fruits, and not only in the parish councils and school boards which are now commonplace.

There is no doubt that this was a reforming Council but the Council preferred to use the term renewal 'Ecclesia Renovanda' rather than the term reformation used by Luther. Perhaps in the light of our present troubles an even better title would be 'Ecclesia Semper Purificanda' that is a Church always in need of purification.

Where Are We Now?

It is now more than forty years since the start of the Second Vatican Council. The number of Catholics in Australia is still increasing, with a rise of 202,000 between the 1996 - 2001 censuses. There are increasing demands on nearly all Catholic agencies. Catholic school numbers are rising as is the number of aged care facilities, while hospitals continue strongly. The Catholic Centacare agencies still make an enormous contribution to healing in our society. As a bishop I am one of the few privileged people who regularly visit many of our different parishes and institutions. Very few if any of our Catholic parishes are dead or dying. In many places they are strong and vibrant communities, which figure very rarely in the public media. Vocations to the priesthood are now almost adequate in some of the major Catholic Archdioceses, although in other places numbers continue low. Unfortunately many Religious Orders are dying, their demise welcomed by some of their members. I am told that one or two Orders have already formally decided to take no more novices. Although many religious are retired, members, young and old, still contribute magnificent service to the community. This has to be replaced in some way if the Church's contribution to the Australian community is not to be radically reduced. The new lay movements which flourish in some countries overseas have not had equal growth here, but we have some vigorous youth groups and increasing numbers have gone to the World Youth Day and experienced either genuine conversions or a strengthening of existing faith. Approximately seventeen percent of Catholics still worship at Sunday Mass, a number which has fallen from approximately fifty plus percent forty or fifty years ago. We still have formidable strengths in many areas, quite unmatched in all the other main line Christian Churches. Many of our Catholic ethnic communities remain particularly strong.

Catholic liberalism seems to be dying and there are only small pockets of Catholic radicals. It is hard to find a practising Catholic dissident under fifty years of age. There are a few people in Australia who speak loudly of 'loyal dissent', a new category which has been introduced into the conversation since the Council. When does loyal dissent become unacceptable disloyalty?

Catholicism teaches that Christ is the son of God who came to redeem and save us and explain to us the secrets of this life and the next. His teaching has a unique authority. We regard it as divinely revealed rather than simply the work of human intelligence.

For any religion which claims to be divinely revealed there are two burning questions 1) what is the essential core of belief and practice that must be preserved in any restructuring and updating? 2) what is necessary for continuing or increasing spiritual vitality? These questions are different and the answers are not entirely the same.

The nub of the difficulty is identifying where the legitimate diversity in non essentials begins after the unity which is necessary in essentials. At every level of course there should be charity.

From the first days of Christianity a hierarchy of truths has been recognised with fundamental truths enshrined in either the baptismal promises or in the creeds said at Mass e.g. the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed.

The category of loyal dissent now means that many want to stay as full communicant members of the Catholic Church while rejecting specific doctrines of faith and morals that nearly everyone would have regarded as essential in the past. Examples from my own limited experience of such doctrines include the denial of the divinity of Christ, claims that abortion and euthanasia can be legitimate, that homosexual activity and pre-marital sexual activity generally should also get a tick. Other possibilities which are urged are the reception of communion after divorce and remarriage, and women priests. Yet a further category would touch on the issues of artificial contraception and married clergy.

Why and how have we arrived at this situation? George Weigel, the author of the best biography of Pope John Paul II claims that theologians today learnt from the fate of Charles Davis who left the Catholic church round about Christmas time 1966 over important doctrinal differences. He disappeared from public view, being mentioned publicly only at his death some years ago. Weigel suggests that dissident theologians have learnt from this and believe they can get much more publicity for their views while remaining in the Catholic Church. There is no doubt that many, perhaps all of them, want to reform the Church in major areas, to make it more 'acceptable', to bring it closer to the spirit of the age. And one of the enabling mechanisms for this has been the appeal to primacy of conscience.


I believe strongly in the importance of individual conscience. It is indispensable. I have already endorsed the Second Vatican Council document on Freedom of Religion. In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped. I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.

Let me tell you a story. At a cocktail party one evening a fairly prominent figure in Australian public life told me that he was not a Christian because he could no longer believe in the Divinity of Christ. I replied that I agreed that he could not be a Catholic while rejecting the Divinity of Christ but it could be possible for him to call himself a Christian, if he accepted many of Christ's teachings about God and on morality. 'No', he said, 'I do not accept the Divinity of Christ, and therefore I am not a Christian. But I do believe in God and I am not frightened to meet my Maker after death'.

This was a man of integrity. He had reached a wrong conclusion, but there was every indication that he had come to this decision honestly and honourably. I admired his integrity. He acknowledged that he stood under the truth, that he would answer to God, and that he had to take the consequences of his position for his membership of the Catholic Church. This was an appropriate exercise of individual conscience, even though, as I mentioned, the conclusion was mistaken.

In Chapter 3 of the first letter of St. John, read at Mass some weeks ago, St. John spells out the link between conscience and the commandments, between freedom and truth. He explained that the way to love God is to follow his Commandments. This is basic. Christians have no entitlement to define sins out of existence, to deny or ignore fundamental teachings of faith, by claiming that their consciences are free or that they believe in the primacy of conscience. There is no substitute for personal sincerity, and we honour striving for the truth. But our consciences can be mistaken, sometimes mistaken through our own fault. And in any event we have to take the public consequences for our positions. It will not help me in a court of Law to claim that I did not realise I was driving on the right hand side of the road!

It is somewhat misleading also to claim that our conscience is free. Free for what? We do not boast that we are free to tell lies, although usually lies do not put people in gaol. Neither do we boast that we are free to read our watch in anyway we like, to get the time wrong intentionally. So too with conscience. Conscience is at the service of truth; it stands under God's word. Conscience has no primacy. Truth has primacy. The Word of God has primacy. When basic Catholic and Christian doctrines are explicitly and sometimes publicly denied, basic questions of personal integrity then have to be answered. I believe that the mischievous doctrine of the primacy of conscience has been used to white-ant the Church, used to justify many un-catholic teachings, ranging as I mentioned from denying the Divinity of Christ to legitimising abortion and euthanasia.

The so-called primacy of conscience offers no useful way forward in our current dilemmas.

What Is To Be Done?

I was born during the Second World War. As a youngster I can remember my mother explaining to me what a shock it was when the British base at Singapore fell to the Japanese, probably the greatest defeat in British military history. The Japanese came down the Malayan peninsula while most of the big British guns faced out to sea.

A similar thing happened with the old Chinese empire. For hundreds of years they were concerned about the approach of enemies from the west and the north. Hence the Great Wall of China. In the nineteenth century Europeans invaded from the East, they came in from the sea.

Those Christians who believe that the fortunes of Christianity can be revived by conforming basic teachings of faith and morals more closely with the spirit of the age are like the British and Chinese of old; their defences are facing in the wrong direction. Similarly those within the Christian Churches, liberals or radicals, who are struggling to eliminate many important Christian moral teachings are damaging fellow Christians; something like friendly fire in a war. There can be no retreat from the basics of the Apostolic tradition of faith and morals, although we must continue to penetrate it more deeply in dialogue with the modern world and with new and developing insights from a variety of modern and ancient disciplines like philosophy, medicine and psychology.

For many this is counter-intuitive. However it is interesting to chart the areas where there is Christian vitality today, especially among young people. This is overwhelmingly where the fullness of the Christian tradition is taught, where the call to conversion is taught, the call to repentance and belief following the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. This is already true in Australia.

Undoubtedly the major challenge is with young people and with middle-aged people. Many of those have not been adequately introduced to the basics of the Catholic tradition. In fact a contemporary temptation is to rely on someone else to be teaching the basics so that in fact these rudimentary truths are not explained strongly and clearly at all. Such basics include: 1) the teaching that the one true God, Father Son and Spirit, loves us, especially when we are in trouble; 2) that Jesus Christ the only son of God redeemed and saved us through his teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection; 3) that there is one true Church led by the Pope and the bishops, although we work happily with our sister Churches such as the Orthodox and with the other Christian denominations; and 4) that Christ calls us to follow him. In other words Catholicism is primarily a religion concerned about worship, service, and right personal conduct. On too many occasions the principal energy of some Catholics has been diverted into other areas; for example, nationalism, being successful, keeping the organisation running efficiently, concern for social justice or ecology or life issues or feminism. It is not too difficult for the primary religious call to be misplaced.

It might also be an appropriate time to say a few words on the sexual scandals that have beset the Catholic Church. Their gravity cannot be ignored or underestimated, but I believe that these abuses and crimes (and the way they have been dealt with) are symptoms of malaise and confusion, evidence of personal sin and evil rather than evidence of widespread corruption. We must continue to face up to the truth, and deal justly with complaints. We should also acknowledge that only a small minority are offenders. Clear moral standards are a help to everyone in avoiding sin and to superiors in enforcing discipline. People, religious and irreligious, are correct to insist that we practise what we preach. It is not clear to me that mandatory celibacy is a major cause of paedophilia, most of which occurs in family situations. But bishops and religious superiors must continue to be vigilant against all misdemeanours, especially with children but also with adults.

Another important issue is women in the Church: The position of women in the Church continues to be vexed, even though most Catholic church-going women in Australia are not opposed to Church teaching against women priests1. There is some anecdotal evidence that religious practice is as unpopular among young Australian Catholic women as it is among young men2, a finding (if confirmed) which would be unprecedented in sociology. However we shall see continuing change here as the Western birth rate continues to fall and population numbers decrease radically in Europe.

As in the Roman Empire the Catholic Church will have new opportunities to give leadership on the emancipation of women from the constraints of a permissive and anti-child society, protecting women who choose not to enter employment and encouraging flexible working hours so that mothers with children can continue in the work force.


Undoubtedly the best known exponent of the Vatican II exhortation to dialogue with the worlds of popular culture and contemporary thought is Pope John Paul II. In many areas from philosophy through his great moral encyclicals to the theology of the body he has broken new ground and changed the parameters. It is quaint to see a few commentators repeating positions fashionable in the 1970s and imagining that these continue at the centre of discussion and development.

Some talk also as though a change in the balance of power between the Roman centre and individual dioceses or bishops' conferences would radically enhance the preaching of the gospel and the number of personal conversions. This would be as effective as the Chinese stationing most of their troops in Sichuan to protect their Eastern seaboard.

Modern communications and travel have changed the way the Roman Curia and the Catholic world interact. These changes will continue I even have a cautious optimism that some such changes could benefit Catholic life. My opposition to the suggestion that the political notion of subsidiarity, built on the premise that all power comes from the people, can be usefully applied to Church life does not betoken an opposition to gradual development, provided the special role of the Successor of St. Peter is preserved. Even baptismal power comes from God and the priestly authority to teach, sanctify and govern comes from ordination, the sacrament of orders, not from majority opinion, especially when most of these are not regular worshippers.

The Church always needs purification (semper punficanda), especially through prayer and penance. All suffering, including the humiliation of public scandals can be used as occasions for learning and improvement, for doing better, much better.

Some Catholics, even senior students in Catholic schools, might not believe in the divinity of Christ, the special status of the sacraments, the Real Presence, the authority of the Pope. They might accept the legitimacy of abortion, euthanasia, and every form of adult sexual activity. In many cases we are powerless to prevent this. But they should not be so mistaken to imagine these are legitimate Catholic teachings. Clear Catholic teaching is needed.

In working to protect the core of the Catholic tradition of faith and morals, the tradition bequeathed to us from Christ and the apostles, one is not playing at cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. Whatever our position these are substantive issues, worthy of discussion and debate.

Over two thousand years the Catholic Church has weathered persecutions, storms and trials, enemies from within and outside. Secularism will prove a more enduring challenge than Communism and the lethal influences on Catholic life, the acid rain, are coming from the society around us.

In the nineteenth century the philosopher Nietzsche claimed that the newspaper had replaced daily prayer. Later T.V. replaced the newspaper and now the Internet is replacing T.V.! Last century G.K. Chesterton wrote that man has always lost his way, but modern man has lost his address.

The Western world is more and more preoccupied with self, extolling personal autonomy, obsessed with self-realisation. People are urged to turn inwards, to confront the emptiness with clichés from the New Age or the sophistication of Eastern religions.

Catholicism strikes out in a different direction. The Vatican II constitution on the Church in the World (par.22) insists that the human mystery is only intelligible in the light of Christ. 'Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from his gospel they overwhelm us'. Christ and the Catholic tradition call us to faith, hope and love, to an eternity of happiness won through Christ's death and resurrection. The Church reminds us of the necessity of community, of the moral law, natural and revealed; reminds us too that we need to worship and pray regularly.

Membership of the Catholic Church is a wonderful honour. We belong to a proud community of worship and service; flawed and sinful certainly, always in need of purification, but a tradition of truth, beauty and unselfish love.

This is why the Catholic Church has survived and continues to prosper; even in Australia.

Address to Catalyst for Renewal, St Patrick's, Church Hill, Sydney, Friday, May 30, 2003

  1. Woman & Man: One in Christ Jesus (Report on Participation of Women in the Catholic Church), Harper Collins:1999 p145, table 5.9.
  2. Catholic Church Life Survey 1996 (CCLS96)

From "Annals Australasia" June 2003

Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files


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