I have heard surprisingly few Catholic responses to this week’s news of the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. I guess those who are not in denial are in shock. Let me interrupt the stunned silence with an outsider’s perspective.
This is not just another paedophile priest story – Pell was a key figure in the Vatican under the last three popes – and a major public face of the church’s moral conservatism. So will his fall bring a new level of Catholic soul-searching, a new critique of the Church’s entire moral culture?
Pope Francis himself often seems to call for such critique. Last week he warned against the potential dangers of moral rigidity, while speaking about the child sex abuse scandal in general. ‘Behind rigidity something always lies hidden’ he said. ‘In many cases, a double life’. It’s a line he has used repeatedly in the last few years – while upholding the Church’s moral teachings, he has urged priests to interpret them in a flexible, humane way.
Some people will reply to this with annoyed bafflement – if the pope sees moral rigidity as dubious, shouldn’t he be in a different job? For surely priestly celibacy is a form of rigidity that has served as a cover for paedophilia? It’s a bit like his oddly detached response when asked for his view on homosexuality: ‘Who am I to judge?’
To liberal Christians like me, it’s a bit dubious for the pope to play ‘good cop’ so charmingly. Roman Catholicism seems wedded to a flawed moral conservatism, and an excessive emphasis on rules. Surely Christianity emerged in opposition to rigid moral laws, we protest.
But at the same time many of us are impressed by the intensity and commitment that this tradition fosters – the will to defy the comfy assumptions of secular culture. Maybe liberal Christianity lacks the ballast and the backbone to survive. Maybe it has married the spirit of the age, and will end up a widow. Yes, that’s right – I am such a woolly liberal that I even wonder if I should be less of a woolly liberal.
My point is that liberal Christians should admit to mixed feelings towards this grander, tougher tradition. Though we feel called to criticise its moral conservatism, and its aura of authority, which can lead to secrecy and cover-ups, we are also impressed – for here the Christian message is strongly expressed in a dynamic, engaging culture that reaches into all aspects of life. By contrast Protestantism is too abstract and wordy, too awkward about ritual, unsure how to distinguish itself from the culture around it. Its more liberal wing has lots of theoretical virtues, but it has not produced a robust new version of Christian culture. Until it does, our criticism should be nuanced. Ultimately my view on Roman Catholics is like the pope’s view on homosexuals – who am I to judge?