"If I cannot listen to the subtle manifestation of rich reality in my environment, I will necessarily try to impose my wilful codes on others. If I am not open to reality and do not obey the voice of reality, a terrible distortion takes place. Sooner or later I will turn the whole relationship around: Instead of listening to reality in people and events, I become convinced that reality in people and events should listen to me."

[Adrian van Kaam, The Art of Existential Counseling, Dimension Books, 1966, 80.]

Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell and the Grand Inquisitor

Michael Whelan SM

JGrand Inquisitor

I refer to the report by Dan Hitchens in London’s Catholic Herald, 29 November 2016 (Link here to Article) . Hitchens reports on a talk given by Cardinal Pell in London on St Damien of Molokai as part of a series of talks for the Year of Mercy. It all sounds terribly familiar. Cardinal Pell needs to be challenged as a mischief-maker.

Hitchens writes: “George Pell has said that ‘a number of regularly worshipping Catholics’ are ‘unnerved by the turn of events’ in the Church.” What does that mean – “unnerved by the turn of events” in the Church? If the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump in America and the rather large vote for Pauline Hanson and her group in Australia are signs of the times, there are a lot of unnerved folk out there. Just why they are unnerved demands some serious discernment.

Cardinal Pell in fact went on to suggest why these Catholics are “unnerved”: “He said that while Pope Francis has ‘a prestige and popularity outside the Church’ greater than perhaps any previous Pope, some Catholics are currently uneasy.” He then went on to his favourite topic: “Cardinal Pell said that emphasising the ‘primacy of conscience’ could have disastrous effects, if conscience did not always submit to revealed teaching and the moral law.” He then goes on to cite – and misrepresent – Cardinal Newman and St John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor.

It would have been helpful if Cardinal Pell had quoted John Henry Newman’s observation in his famous letter to the Duke of Norfolk:

“I add one remark. Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Father Joseph Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI – puts it more clearly in his 1969 reflections on Gaudium et Spes #16:

“Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary, even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. .... Conscience confronts (the individual) with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church”. (H Vorgrimler, editor, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II – Volume V, Burns & Oates, 1969, 134.)

And Cardinal Pell could also have noted that, in Veritatis Splendor, St John Paul II writes in #64: “The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience”.

All of which is very much in line with many other authoritative statements, such as:

"Moreover, man has a natural right to be respected. …. He has a right to freedom in investigating the truth." (Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 12.)

"People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it." (Pope John Paul II, Message for World Peace Day 1999.)

I suggest that one good reason for many Catholics feeling “unnerved” is that Pope Francis is taking the best of the Church’s teaching on conscience and urging us to get serious about it. For too long the representatives of the Church like Cardinal Pell have presented a half-baked teaching on conscience that actually double binds the faithful who take it as the fully baked loaf.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky died a few months after he finished his novel, The Brothers Karamazov in 1880. Thank God he lived long enough to complete this novel. At the heart of it is a very tiny work of particular genius, often extracted and published in its own right as a stand-alone piece. It is “The Grand Inquisitor”. Ivan, the atheist, tells his younger brother Alyosha, the seminarian, of a dream he has had. The dream is set in 16th century Spain. The Church is intent on getting rid of heresy and heretics. Jesus appears at the doors of the cathedral as they are carrying the coffin of a little girl out. He raises her from the dead. At that moment, the Cardinal Inquisitor walks around the corner with his retinue. He recognizes Jesus and orders him to be arrested. The story then consists mostly of the monologue of the Cardinal explaining to Jesus that he has no right to do this, that the Church has taken a long time to set the world in order and that he will sentence Jesus to death. The Cardinal says:

"For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that it’s over for good? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be wrath with me. But let me tell Thee that now, today, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?”"

“I don’t understand again,” Alyosha broke in. “Is he ironical, is he jesting?”

(Ivan answers) “Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy.” (Fyodor Dostoievsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett, Modern Library College Editions, 1950, 296.)

The Cardinal Inquisitor then sums it up nicely:

“There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive forever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness--those forces are miracle, mystery and authority.”

I recall an address Cardinal Pell gave in The Crypt of St Patrick’s Church, Church Hill in 2003. He began by saying he had spoken a lot about the dangers of accepting the primacy of conscience in recent years, but that on this occasion he would speak about the primacy of truth. I had my suspicions about what was to follow but was nonetheless curious to hear the Cardinal elaborate. What he presented was a simplistic attempt to attack the teaching on the primacy of conscience from another angle. In other words, there is the truth waiting there, if you do not know it we (the Church) do know it, accept what we say uncritically and unquestioningly and simply do as you are told. This flies in the face of the statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference on Humanae Vitae in 1974:

“It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in the matter, and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with the papal teaching. Such a person could be without blame; he would certainly not have cut himself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his conscience he could be without subjective fault.”

Cardinal Pell would be better advised to get behind Pope Francis, and do everything in his power to see that the Pope’s vision is promoted. At the moment he seems to be doing all he can – along with Cardinal Raymond Burke and his ilk – to white-ant the amazing work of Pope Francis.