April 30, 2008 | Graham

George Pell at the Brisbane Institute

I heard Cardinal George Pell speak at the Brisbane Institute last night and Jack Waterford in the Canberra Times has a pretty good precis of what he said.
The Brisbane Institute billed it as:

Cardinal Pell considers questions such as: Is democracy only secular? What role can the Catholic Church and its moral vision play, and have they played, in strengthening democracy? How does “religious capital” strengthen political society? What is the bishop’s critical role in building a culture of life? And whyis belief in God important to the health of a democratic society?

In fact it was an intellectually slight lecture against a bill of rights.
How can you discuss a bill of rights without defining exactly what you mean by one? There are a lot of differences between a Constitutional Bill of Rights, for example, and a legislative Charter of Rights, but Pell lumped them all together.
He seemed to think that rights were best left up to the people, via the legislature, and kept well away from judges. How do you do that when every piece of legislation embeds rights which are then subject to potential interpretation by the courts?
There is a false dichotomy in the general bill of rights debate which is that you have a choice to have a bill or not. You don’t. The choice is whether you have major and minor rights sprinkled around a galaxy of legislation, or whether you collect the most important of them into one piece of legislation and decide the relationship between them, as in which rights are more fundamental than others. A further choice is whether you imbed that document in the constitution, where it can only be changed by a referendum supported by a majority of voters in a majority of states, or in legislation, which can be changed by a simple majority in parliament.
The idea that you can keep laws away from judges is bizarre.
I also found it a little bizarre that his Eminence was putting such a stress on the powers of democracy when he is a senior office holder in an organisation that is famously undemocratic, and which itself runs a legally recognised state. If there had been time I would have asked him for his thoughts on how his belief in the power of the people could be harnessed by the Roman church ot make it more effective.
Others might like to answer this question below.

Posted by Graham at 10:25 am | Comments (7) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. The Catholic Church is essentially a monarchy on matters of “faith and morals” as they believe that Jesus, as God, gave decision making authority to the Apostles who then handed it on to the bishops who then perpetuated the process right up to modern times. I don’t think that makes them ‘anti-democracy’ in general, I guess at most they could be called ‘anti-democracy’ in matters of “faith and morals”.
    I don’t agree with their claims but I do think that it’s perfectly consistent for someone like Pell to claim that democratic processes are important in some matters (like the running of the state) whilst believing they’re not appropriate in others (like determining matters of “faith and morals”).

    Comment by Tysen Woodlock — April 30, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

  2. That’s probably more or less what Pell would have said, but it skirts the issue that someone like Pell would have said similar things about absolute monarchs in the past, particularly just after they had crowned and annointed them.
    If the Catholic conception of state management can move on, then surely there is an imperative to examine the basis of church management?
    Our modern democracies owe a lot to the reformation which saw many protestants exercising democracy in the management of their churches. Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Quakers come to mind.
    There are many critics within the Catholic Church who’d like to see it more democratic, in the not unreasonable belief that women, to pick an example, would have a more central role in the church, as they do in, for example, the Anglican Church or the Uniting Church, which both practice a form of democracy.

    Comment by Graham Young — April 30, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

  3. While the Roman Catholic church is very unlikely to change its top-down formal structure, we live in an age where it does not have the power to force people to attend its services, to pay money to it and to obey its edicts on what they may read and say.
    This means that the Church must constantly be aware of the opinions of its members, who provide the money and labour to keep church life going. I understand, for instance, that donations to the church in Boston dried up after the paedophilia scandal there.
    In a speech which appears to date from late 1994 or early 1995, Cardinal Pell attacks the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Bill 1994.
    (Then) Cardinal Pell identifies a major enemy of the Catholic Church in Australia as “one current in our society which has fierce antipathy to…strong and specific leadership on moral issues. They have a different concept of rights, different ideas about where the limits of personal freedom are to be set. Some voices become quite shrill against those who firmly declare that in Australia’s mores, sexual promiscuity is unacceptable on moral grounds, as always, and now also on the new public health and hygiene grounds that it spreads sexually transmitted diseases. Parliament’s firmness and confidence in this will be a powerful step towards eliminating sexually transmitted diseases.”
    Elsewhere in the speech, Pell identifies people who hold to these opinions as ‘neo-pagans’.
    To understand the true position of the Catholic Church, one must look to recent history, and beyond Pell’s intellectual dishonesty (EG “Family decline has run in parallel with the expansion of homosexual activism”)
    The Catholic heirarchy must continually declare itself correct on matters of morals. And yet, when faced with inevitable social changes, they will silently move to accomodate them, even as they complain loudly about them to give themselves cover. For evidence of this, answer the question “Where are the Australian Catholic families with seven children today?”
    They hardly exist any more, because Catholic women choose to use birth control,
    against the express directions of the Church. And yet these women desire to _remain_ in the church, and the conservative moralists (I use the term as a descriptive label, not a sneer) in the Church show no signs whatsoever of launching a serious campaign to excommunicate them. This would not be a serious option for anyone who wanted to keep the Church in existence.
    As far as the content of the lecture goes, in particular the anti-judge rhetoric, I guess that this is Pell trying to join in the general conservative hostility against ‘elitist secular liberalism’ or ‘neo-paganism’ among judges.

    Comment by David Jackmanson — April 30, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

  4. David, I think there are genuine reasons to be concerned about judicial activism. There is a difference between a judge being faced with circumstances not clearly covered in legislation, but on which he has to make a decision, being inventive in the way he or she tackles it; and a judge deciding, out of the blue, to invent a principle which is completely outside the ambit of the legislation in front of him or her.
    One of my arguments for a Bill of Rights is that it can limit such judicial adventurism.

    Comment by Graham Young — April 30, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  5. The tricksters within some Buddhist traditions have a phrase which sums up mister Pell perfectly.
    “the stench of holiness”.
    The fact of the matter is that he is just as full of the usual double-minded contradictions and (in his case) hypocracies as every one else.

    Comment by Sue — May 1, 2008 @ 10:53 am

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