Cardinal George Pell Interview

GEORGE NEGUS: Cardinal, thanks very much for your time because I realise these are incredibly busy times for you and the Church at the moment.


This whole situation has seen enormous media coverage throughout the world. Is this an indication of just how powerful the church is at the moment or do you think it was probably because he was such a charismatic pope?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: I think both facts but undoubtedly the second fact is enormously important. He was an extraordinarily charismatic figure.

GEORGE NEGUS: As an outsider to the Catholic Church, it appears to someone like myself that there were almost two Pope John Paul II’s. There was this man who was incredibly conservative on social issues, domestic church issues – like celibacy, like abortion, like birth control, like marriage, married priests, like AIDS, like homosexuality, that was one Pope John Paul II. The other Pope John Paul II was this man who was very aggressive on the international stage. He’s opposed the war in Iraq. He’s said that the pre-emptive strikes are not morally justifiable, etc. He’s spoken out against the Third World debt. He’s campaigned against racism and world poverty. So there were – he was almost a schizoid figure and I use that term advisedly.

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: No, no, not at all. He was a typically Catholic figure. As a Catholic, we don’t judge things in the categories of many people who don’t belong to our tradition or don’t have any faith. So he brought a very coherent package based on human dignity, the linkage, especially, between truth and freedom, the maintenance of the Catholic tradition, and bringing freedom to people so that they can practise their religion and make their choices in public life.

GEORGE NEGUS: I notice in today’s press here that you said that the door on radical reform of the church was closed and that you hoped that the successor to Pope John Paul II would not be a reformist. Do you believe that it needs to be a, if you like, conservative pope that succeeds him?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: Well, I don’t think I used quite the words described. The new pope will bring different perspectives but will be within the general line or orientation of Pope John Paul II.

GEORGE NEGUS: Not a reformist in other words?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: Well, the last Pope changed lots of things so it’s very possible that the next pope, as every pope brings something new and different, there will be changes. We have to change to keep up with things.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let’s say for argument’s sake that the next pope, his successor, was to arrive on the scene in the Vatican and say that he in fact supported – supports in fact the American invasion of Iraq. Wouldn’t that leave the world with a couple of million, at least, very confused Catholics to have the previous Pope opposed to something like that and then his successor to say he was actually in favour of it?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: Well you see the church is not primarily a political organisation. We’re a religious organisation. There’s a much greater opportunity…

GEORGE NEGUS: If I interrupt, Pope John Paul could hardly be described as an apolitical pope.

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: No, but he certainly wasn’t primarily a political pope. That’s one of the paradoxes. That a man who wasn’t primarily interested in politics had such an enormous affect, especially in Poland. Once Poland started to come to pieces for the Catholic world, the whole communist empire collapsed. He was supported by Reagan and Thatcher and also, of course, by the solidarity movement led by Walesa. It was an unusual conjunction in history.

GEORGE NEGUS: Did you agree with him, by the way, just for the record, do you agree with Pope John Paul II his position, his stand on the war in Iraq?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: Yes, I never endorsed the war in Iraq. I would move from within the “just war” tradition. I think I myself would allow the possibility that a pre-emptive strike, at least tightly defined, could be possible against terrorists that were definitively moving against a country.

GEORGE NEGUS: So your position was…

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: But I stood with the Pope.

GEORGE NEGUS: On pre-emptive strikes though, it sounds like your position wasn’t quite the same as his?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: No, I stood with him on his position on the war in Iraq but I think there’s a lot of talking and reasoning to be done, possibly even developments within the “just war” tradition to deal with the new reality of terrorism.

GEORGE NEGUS: Some would argue both inside and outside the church that without reform, the church is in danger of not surviving. The numbers are down in congregations, the numbers of priests are down, you are in a position, a parlous position some people would describe. Doesn’t that mean without reform, for instance like married priests, or the ordination of women, the church could find itself in a serious numbers trouble?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: I find it slightly bizarre that there should be talk about the church dying when we have, right throughout the world, such spectacular affection for the head of the Catholic Church. Our situation is difficult. It will always be difficult. There are currents in modern life, hostility to life, the family, but in other parts of the world the challenges are different. Christianity in Islam, in Africa, the spread of the Protestant sects in South America. The whole vast new world of China that, please God, will open up more to Christianity in the future. We’re always under pressure, there’ll always be tensions, there’ll always be somebody who’s going to suggest we’re going out of business but I think we’ll be around for a long, long time.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess some people could say sceptically without a charismatic figure, without a PR man and a great marketer for the church the way John Paul II was, reform may be absolutely essential if you are going to survive?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: No, there’s no possibility for vitality in the church without fidelity to the gospels. If you look at the Churches throughout the world, throughout the Western world, where radical reform has been attempted, the Church has collapsed and almost disappeared. The vitality in the Church, the young people who are here in their tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands possibly, young people who belong, who adhere strongly to the central tradition of Christ and the Church.

GEORGE NEGUS: I notice that you are, in fact, mentioned in the betting odds for the position to succeed the Pope at 50:1. Are you a betting man? How do you see yourself running in the papal stakes?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: My odds must be lengthening. I had heard shorter figures than that but I wouldn’t advise any of my friends to be investing too much. As I said at home, if you’ve got a little bit of form on a country track it doesn’t make you one of the favourites for the Melbourne Cup.

GEORGE NEGUS: And you don’t see the next pope coming from a developing nation as we read from the quotes in the newspapers today. You think that maybe down the track but at the moment definitely not from a developing country?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: It’s certainly possible that he could come from – well he could come from anywhere but he certainly could come from South America, possibly even Africa.

GEORGE NEGUS: Cardinal, I don’t mean this in a facetious or a sacrilegious way, but how does the Holy Spirit guide people like yourself in the conclave when there has to be politics involved, there has to be ideology involved, there has to be numbers involved, is the Holy Spirit a good political numbers man?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: No, sometimes He gets it right, sometimes He gets it wrong. But the Holy Spirit always works through free individuals. We try to listen to one another, we try to think, we try to discern what the church needs and to come to some consensus. The Holy Spirit only works through humans and through natural means generally. I’ve received no special inspiration.

GEORGE NEGUS: It’s interesting though you said sometimes the Holy Spirit can get it wrong?

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: Yes, well there have been bad popes in history.

GEORGE NEGUS: Cardinal, I’m afraid we’re losing our satellite but thank you very, very much for giving us as much time as you did.

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: A pleasure, George, all the best. Thank you.