Synod: Interview with Cardinal George Pell

Interview with Cardinal George Pell
October 10, 2008

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, is one of three co-presidents of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible, which means that he alternates with Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of São Paulo, Brazil, in presiding over each session. [Among other things, it also means Pell shares responsibility for tracking attendance; as we were making our way out of the parking lot in front of the synod hall on Friday afternoon, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga pulled Pell aside to tell him he would be absent the next day because he was scheduled to ordain new priests. “That sounds like a great thing to do,” Pell cheerily replied.]

Pell, 67, has a reputation as a staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy in the highly secular milieu of Sydney, which has given him a high public profile and also made him something of a lightning rod. In July, he hosted Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney for celebration of the Catholic church's World Youth Day. Pell is also the chair of the Vox Clara Commission, which advises the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship on the translation of liturgical texts into English.

On Friday, Oct. 10, Pell sat down for an interview about the Synod of Bishops. The following is a complete transcript, which also includes comments from Pell about the possible canonization of Pope Pius XII.

Let’s start with a question I’m sure many people outside Rome may be asking. The global economy is in meltdown, there’s a crucial election looming in the United States, violence continues to rage in Iraq and elsewhere. In the context of all this, why should anyone care what’s happening at the Synod of Bishops?

That’s an interesting question. In a time of difficulty like this, it highlights what are for us the central religious concerns. We’re not a political party, and we’re not a welfare agency. We’re not primarily interested in money. We’re interested in the call to conversion, and we affirm the importance of an afterlife, of reward and punishment after this life. Most people in times of upheaval look at the most important things in their lives – their family, love, God – the essential things. Their concern for these things is generally strengthened in moments of crisis. Sometimes people lose their faith in the midst of suffering, but in any event, these essential questions are seen in a new light as empires crumble around us.

Do you think the synod will have anything to say about the economic crisis?

The only thing we can say is to repeat the central teachings of Christ. When men and women over-reach themselves, when they set out to be totally autonomous, to be like God, trouble often follows. Also, greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Both McCain and Obama have pointed out that greed is one element of what caused the current troubles. There was reckless risk-taking to get a cut, to boost profits. A classic example of this came with one of the companies that recently folded, which wanted billions in a bailout, but apparently one of their non-negotiables was over $400 million for the chief executives. Well, that seems to me to be a classical example of misdirected ambitions.

Would the concluding message be a place for the synod fathers to say a word about the crisis?

The financial crisis is enormously complicated, and I would hope that we don’t attempt to say too much. You’ve really got to know what you’re talking about on these matters if you’re going to say something sensible. I think we can call for a return to the central moral teachings of the Christian message, our central personal concerns. As far as the specifics of the economic situation, I don’t anticipate that the synod would say anything extensive, and I would be very keen that if we do say something, it make good financial sense as well as good religious sense.

What are the most important issues at stake in the synod?

I’ve been to a number of synods … I think this is my fifth. I would say the synod is going along very sedately and securely. I’d say there’s less division in this synod than in any synod I’ve been to. We’re all in favor of the Word of God, we’re all in favor of treating it as a foundation of inspiration, we’re all in favor of trying to help people be enriched by it. There’s a lot of discussion about lectio divina, there’s a lot about small communities being regularly nourished by their prayerful reading of the scriptures. There’s been no great debate about whether scripture and tradition make up one source or two, no dissension from a recognition that the Word of God, and the scriptures, come from within the church.

That second point is important. The scriptures, under the inspiration of the Spirit, were written by early members of the church. It was the church, over hundreds of years, which recognized what books make up the canon of the scriptures. These sorts of considerations are often forgotten by the Protestant sects. I think it was St. Augustine who said that he only came to believe in Christ after he came to believe in the church, because we only know about Christ because of the reliable witness of the church.

There’s a number of other things I hope will be taken up [by the synod]. One thing I’m going to mention is the importance of Bible translations. In Asia and Africa, especially with the local languages, this is a major problem. It’s been mentioned already, but I’m going to support the idea that an Institute for Biblical Translation be set up, especially for those in Asia and Africa. In an ideal world, it would be a post-graduate institute.

In Rome?

It could be anywhere, although Rome would be one good place for it. It would offer post-graduate study of the scriptures. It might be people who are writers in their local language, and don’t have the time to study the scripture. That’s a significant challenge.

You’re talking about an institute for translation, not for exegesis?

Yes, that’s correct, specifically for translators. That would be useful even in the European languages.

You’ve had some experience with translation issues, working with the Vox Clara Commission.

I suppose that’s focused my attention on this issue. We’ve got a particular problem there, because the number of people who really understand Latin is vastly reduced. There hasn’t been a similar reduction in the number of people who know Biblical languages. Nonetheless, translation is an exact science, and it takes people who know what they’re doing.

Is it fair to say that the emphasis in this synod is more pastoral than doctrinal?

Yes, I think very explicitly so. That’s the ambition. It’s very difficult to discern any significant doctrinal tensions.

If there aren’t tensions, are there areas of doctrinal consensus – for example, the need for a method of exegesis that goes beyond historical-critical study, or the importance of seeing scripture and tradition as interdependent? Rather than being debated, are these ideas basically assumed?

Yes, that’s right. There have been a number of calls for a closing of the gap between exegetes and pastors.

Are you hearing any ideas about how to do that?

Not many. There’s been quite a lot of talk about the spiritual sense of scripture, the tradition of exegesis going back to the fathers. But no, I haven’t really heard any new strategies along these lines.

Several bishops – Cardinal Ouellet in his opening relation, Cardinal Pengo, Cardinal Vingt-Trois – have talked about a gap between exegetes and the magisterium. Assuming that’s correct, what concretely can be done about it?

It’s not just a gap between exegesis and the magisterium, but between exegesis and preaching and pastoral life in the parishes. One useful suggestion was made by Cardinal Francis George, and that was to ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to put out something on inerrancy. I think that could be useful, not just for the dialogue between experts and pastors, but also in speaking with young educated people.

What issues would such a document treat?

One issue is to make clear that saying the Bible is ‘inspired’ is not necessarily the same thing as claiming that it’s universally inerrant, in every way.

So the challenge is to present the Bible as fundamental without being fundamentalists?

I’d agree with that. We are committed to fundamentals, but we’re not fundamentalists. One of the easier areas to delineate is the scientific competence of the Bible, such as evolution … whether, and to what extent, the Bible is talking in a scientific language in any sense at all.

So we can affirm the creation accounts in the Bible as ‘true’ without ending up in creationism?

It depends on what you mean by ‘creationism,’ but yes, basically, that’s right. We’re not obliged to believe that the world was created in seven days. Obviously, we’re not compelled to accept the cosmology of the Book of Genesis.

A document on inerrancy would treat these questions?

It would have to. I’m not sure we’re in a position to have an enormously comprehensive document, but there are a few points, perhaps more than a few firm points, that would be helpful to make. What does it mean to say that the scripture teaches truth?

Probably the scientific side of things is easier than some of the historical issues. We are a historical religion, so we’re committed to some basic claims. For example, this historicity of Jesus’ life, the fact that he lived, died, and rose again. Then you’ve got all the difficult questions that spill over into the Old Testament, and I’m no expert in those areas. But I think it might be useful [to produce such a document], not only for theologians but for the pastoral world, in attempting to explain the Bible to educated young Western people.

At the level of the local church, will anything come out of the synod about how the gap between exegetes and pastors can be bridged?

Well, people have referred quite a bit to the relationship between the Catechism and scriptures. The Congregation for Worship is working on a document, or a handbook, which will set out a doctrinal framework over the three years of the Lectionary. It could be a comprehensive treatment of all the basic Christian themes tied in with the readings. The motive would be so that people would have a systematic coverage of essential topics [over three years].

The charge is often made that sermons today reflect a fairly individual selection of topics, perhaps just using the Bible as a springboard. Sometimes sermons avoid controversial topics, hard Christian teachings.

For example, birth control?

Yes, but even more basically than that, I wonder how many sermons you’d hear on hell … or, to put it a little more politically correctly, reward and punishment after death. It’s a special difficulty given the age range of people in many congregations, but I wonder how many sermons you’d hear on sexuality, marriage, and the family.

The document from the Congregation for Worship will give preachers resources for engaging some of these delicate topics?

Yes, and map out a comprehensive set of topics.

There’s been a lot of talk at the synod about the weakness of preaching. Do you think things are as bad as it sounds?

No, I don’t. I can speak primarily about Australia. I was pleasantly surprised in some of the survey’s we’ve done of church-goers to find a high level of satisfaction with the homilies. Now, you might say the survey is skewed because we’re not asking the people who aren’t there, and it’s possible some people don’t go because they don’t like the homily. But I was pleased and slightly surprised by the approval rating of sermons in Australia among church-goers, and I don’t think that would all be explained by loyalty to their local priest.

One thing I can say, without any fear of contradiction, is that there’s immense variety in the Catholic world. There’s immense variety in my diocese, in terms of levels of affluence, educational levels, ethnicity, level of church practice, and so on. These are multiplied ad infinitum across the Catholic world. It’s difficult to generalize about anything, including the quality of preaching.

Bishop Kicanas mused aloud about declaring 2009 a ‘Year of Preaching.’ What did you make of that?

It’s an interesting idea. How much will come of it, I just don’t know, but it’s a good idea.

Is there a risk of asking the homily to carry more weight than it’s meant to bear?

Yes, and I also think there’s also a danger that we will invest the sacred scriptures with more tasks than they were designed to carry. Newman said something like the scriptures weren’t written to offer a program of conversion, but to preserve the memory of the person of Christ and his teaching.

I’ve been thinking about the World Youth Day ‘Way of the Cross’ in Sydney, which was just a public re-enactment of it, and which was a spectacular success. I think that in this new media age, we need the equivalent of the medieval mystery plays, without all the traditional distractions. I’ll probably also say [in the synod] that at the time of the Reformation, we weren’t the first to have catechisms, we were slow into the vernacular, and we were slow to put scripture into the hands of the people. We don’t want to make the same mistake with the new media.

In some ways, haven’t we already made that mistake? Often Evangelicals and Pentecostals are much more media-savvy about how to bring the Bible to life, aren’t they?

Yes, that’s probably true. But there are good things happening … the Canadian “Salt and Light” network, EWTN in the United States. This world is developing. In Australia, we’ve just set up an interactive web site called “Xt3,” meaning “Christ in the Third Millennium.” It’s got 30,000 members world-wide. Especially for young adults who are in parishes, where they might find themselves a bit isolated, they can get together with friends who have similar interests.

Your point is that promotion of the Bible shouldn’t come at the expense of creative new modes of evangelization?


Let me ask a deliberately provocative question. At the time of the Reformation, some Catholic voices warned that setting the Bible loose on the world would be dangerous. Several speakers at this synod have complained precisely that exegesis and even individual spiritual reading of the Bible has been cut off from the church’s broader tradition. In effect, are you saying those Counter-Reformers who opposed private reading of scripture were right?

No, not at all. Anything you do always has an element of danger, but the church has been enormously enriched by access to the scriptures and study of the scriptures. I remember working with an elderly nun who’s quite a bit older than me, and she told me that when she started out in the convent they didn’t even have their own Bible. They weren’t supposed to. That’s where we’ve come from, and that was wrong.

These days you can grab a Bible at any supermarket, in hotel rooms, or on the Internet, but lots of folks aren’t coming to church – so how do you encourage them to read the Bible in the context of the church?

You do it by using other means of communication, trying to reach them through the public media one way or another. Priests, bishops, and Christian leaders need to talk publicly on public issues, drawing attention to what Catholic teaching, what Biblical teaching, actually is.

One of the things that has scandalized me, although there’s a certain logic to it, is that in the big Evangelical gatherings in Australia – when they get thousands of people together to pray, often young people – is that they don’t have any formal reading of the scriptures. I’m shocked, and a little bit scandalized by that. The preaching and the hymns are full of scriptural references, but they don ‘t have formal reading of the scriptures. I think that’s definitely a mistake, but it’s an implicit recognition, perhaps, that the simple, stark, and pure presentation of the written Word of God, by itself, isn’t enough.

You’re saying that at a strategic level, modern Evangelical and Pentecostal movements are no longer sola scriptura?

They’re not, because they use all sorts of modern gimmicks and tap into all sorts of contemporary sensibilities … one of which, sometimes, is money. The other point is that as a theological matter, the sola scriptura argument is intrinsically unintelligible. It seems to presume that an angel wrote the scriptures, or that Jesus did, or that they dropped from heaven. In fact, church people produced them.

Here’s another provocative question. Probably the most commercially successful presentation of Biblical imagery in recent times has been Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. You may not like it, but it was an undeniably compelling presentation of Biblical themes in popular culture. Yet so far in the synod, the only reference to The Da Vinci Code has come in a footnote to Cardinal Ouellet’s opening speech. Does that suggest the synod is out of touch with the real world?

What Brown did wasn’t exegesis, it was eisegesis [reading into the Bible], and it was shockingly flippant stuff. I almost think it’s a sign of the seriousness of the synod that we haven’t spent too much time on Dan Brown!

But don’t writers like Brown have impact on shaping how a lot of people think about the Bible? Don’t you have some obligation to engage that?

A number of people have spoken about a ‘new Gnosticism,’ and Dan Brown is an example of a kind of popular Gnosticism … you take a bit from here, a bit from there, and so on. To be honest, this is probably more of a problem for those of us in the prosperous Western world. Many of the bishops from other parts of the world are very much enmeshed in their local situations, which have nothing to do with Dan Brown.

One of the big things coming from India, for example, is the persecution Indian Christians are experiencing. What will be fascinating is how it puts a new dimension to inter-religious dialogue, when some of the people you’re keen to dialogue with, and to emphasize how much you have in common with, are persecuting you.

Here’s another point that seems to be missing so far from synod discussions – the difference between a Western and a non-Western way of reading the Bible. For the Western mind, the thought-world of the Bible, the whole concept of the supernatural, is often a bit alien, whereas it’s often more congenial for non-Westerners. Has that come up at all?

No, not really. One of the Filipino bishops, a very capable man, [Archbishop] Orlando Quevedo, who’s secretary of the Asian bishops’ conference, talked about how the relativist-secularist mindset from the West is coming in throughout Asia, through television and so on, and the impact it’s having on their local religious sensibility.

In a globalized world, is secularism destined to spread?

So far, it hasn’t worked like that among the people. In most parts of the [non-Western] world that I have visited, the local people have been totally unimpressed by progressive Western thinking.

Today, Africa, Asia and Latin America are home to two-thirds of the Catholics in the world, and by mid-century that number will be three-quarters. Is there some reason to hope that the rise of the south will affect Biblical exegesis in the church?

I don’t know. I think our pastoral life will be affected, and already is. In Australia, here in Europe, and other places, there are quite a lot of priests from Africa and Asia. Generally, they’re pretty straight up and down theologically. It will depend upon to what extent schools of theology develop significantly. Liberation theology in South America is one example, and there’s been some take-up of it in the Philippines. There’s been a whole movement for inculturation in India, though it will be interesting to see how that pans out in this new climate of persecution.

As far as Biblical exegesis goes, I’d be a bit skeptical. I think so many of our educated Westerners would be immune to those manifestations of simple faith.t

When all is said and done, what are you hoping for from this synod?

I’m not sure how many practical proposals that will be effective in different parts of the world will come out of it. One of the most consoling things about the synod will be the devotion of all the people at the synod to the Word of God which is in the scriptures, and their determination in a whole host of different ways to continuing spreading the Word of God and getting people to follow it more closely.

Rather than a program, it will give us an impulse?

That’s probably better put than anything I was about to say! I think that’s nicely put, because the situation in the church is so ferociously different [in various parts of the world]. We heard from the bishop of Chad this morning, where they’ve had forty years of war. The Catholic people are still being attacked by marauding Muslim Berbers. We heard a beautiful story from a Latvian priest, who during Soviet times was asked to step on the Bible. Instead, he knelt down and kissed it, and they put him in jail. When he came back to the parish and read the first gospel, he held it up and said, ‘This is the Word of God.’ The people wept. They weren’t allowed to cheer, because that would have been a provocation and they all could have ended up in jail, but they wept. It’s a beautiful story.

One of the things that’s clear to me, as a Westerner, is the importance of devoting money and resources to the translation of the scriptures into local languages, in Africa and Asia in particular.

Do you have any fears about the synod?

I don’t have any particular fears. Perhaps one of the hopes I do have is based on the fact that the pope is an absolutely splendid teacher and he’s steeped in the scriptures, so no matter what we give him from the synod, whatever he comes out with will be much better!

I also think the synod is significant for the visit of Rabbi Cohen and for the visit that’s going to happen of Patriarch Bartholomew I. Both of those moments are of long-term significance.

What did you make of what Rabbi Cohen had to say about Pius XII?

I’m a long-time admirer of Pius XII. I wrote an article on Hochhuth’s play [“The Deputy,” accusing Pius of silence during the Holocaust] soon after it came out back in the 1960s. We now know he was put up to that by the East German Communists, and it’s so unfortunate that a lot of the line he ran then has been taken up.

As a bishop and a cardinal, I can’t help thinking how the cards that were dealt to Pius XII were so terrible … the rise of fascism, the Second World War, and then after the war the rise of communism.

Are you in favor of declaring Pius XII a saint?

Yes, I am.


I can’t see any reason to hurry. We have to let the process run its course.

But in deference to Jewish sensibilities, do you think it ought to be delayed?

No, I think this is unfortunately one case where Jewish sensibilities are a bit misdirected. It was an appalling time, but more Jews survived in Italy than anywhere else, and especially in Rome. The whole Dutch experience, when the bishops there spoke out [and the Nazis rounded up Jews in reprisal], shows the real danger that more explicit condemnations would have been not just counter-productive, but almost self-indulgent.

You mean the pope would have eased his conscience at the expense of Jewish lives and the lives of others?

Yes, exactly.

Even some defenders of Pius XII, however, would argue that now is not the right time to declare him a saint because of the damage it would do to Catholic/Jewish relations.

I can’t see any reason for undue delay. Certainly we don’t need to hurry or be provocative, but we also don’t need to drag it out. I’m a long-term friend of the Jewish community, and one of the characteristics of friends is that you can speak the truth charitably to one another.

You don’t think the climate would be more serene 100 years from now? After all, if he’s a saint, he’s already in heaven. He’s not waiting on a declaration from the pope.

I’m not sure it would be fair to Pius to wait 100 years. That might be an implicit judgment that in some way he was guilty of not doing more. If he’s innocent, he deserves to be declared so, and I think that should follow the normal process.

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