February 28, 2020

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Cardinal Pell on Jewish-Christian Understanding — & on Islam


By Daphne Anson


Above and below are photos of Cardinal George Pell, then Archbishop of Sydney, when leading a large group of Catholic pilgrims bound for Europe via Egypt and the Holy Land; in the second one he is entering Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, which according to local folklore rests on the site where Pharoah’s daughter found the infant Moses. In the years since that pilgrimage, Cardinal Pell has entered a figurative version of what a famous “negro spiritual” of course dubs “Egypt Land”, seen as a place of exile and woe.  And, with good reason, for many people in this country and outside it believe Australian “justice” should be in the dock.
He has been long loathed by leftists and secularists, mercilessly targeted by journalists with childish insults aimed at his person and his faith and with obsessive character assassination that has rightly left many people, Catholic and non-Catholic, doubting that he could ever have got a fair trial; indeed, his conviction on the uncorroborated testimony of a single witness has dangerous implications for all Australians.
Here, in order to dispel the impression fostered in some quarters that Cardinal Pell, who has been vilified perhaps more than any other public figure in Australian history, lacks sympathy for the Jewish People, let’s remind ourselves of a speech he gave in Sydney on 14 May 2001, on the topic”Christians and Jews: The way ahead”:

‘Last night Rabbi David quoted the Jewish saying that after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the gift of prophecy is dead; so that those who claim to prophesy are either babes or fools. Despite this, both of us have been condemned tonight, to talk on “the way ahead”, but my ambitions are very limited for a number of good reasons. A bishop has to be planning for tomorrow, although Jesus himself told us not to worry too much. Tomorrow can take care of itself, we have worries enough today! And in the Catholic community there are scattered individuals who are so busy preparing for the future that they ignore and neglect today’s responsibilities.

I speak too as one less wise; my normal condition, but in this case without extensive experience of ongoing dialogue, deep theological or sociological discussion on this vexed area of Jewish a Christian relations. 

However I pray the psalms every day, with all other Catholic priests; and I love them. I don’t know how many priests, especially those suffering or in trouble, who have told me how much the psalms have helped them.

In Rome 35 or 36 years ago our lecturer on the Psalms told us they were unique in any literature. 

These were the years of Vatican II and all such claims were greeted sceptically by many students.

I reserved my judgement and during the later years I have read something of the other great religions and found nothing to equal the Psalms as a body of prayerful literature.

I have come to know and love much more deeply the writings of the great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and especially Ezekiel, the strangest of them all. And I have come lately to study Elijah much more closely. For a long time I didn’t understand his top billing among Jews and Christians and with Jesus himself! Now I believe he is particularly important, and for us now, because monotheism was nearly wiped out then by Jezebel and the prophets of Baal.

It was as a seminarian in the early ’60s that I first heard a rabbi speak, my friend Rabbi John Levi, and I was upset by his energy and honesty. Then I probably considered him aggressive. I had grown up in a family which was strongly pro-Jewish, especially my father, and I even wondered whether Rabbi Levi’s claims about Christian ill treatment were accurate. Further study showed me, only too sadly, that he was basically correct.

Many years ago I wrote a doctorate in history, Christian Church history. I have a respect for the past –  but know how messy and disconcerting and discomforting it can be. I recognise too the difficulty of adequately and accurately presenting the past, but we must face up to what is there, for good or ill. Then we can decide how to deal with it appropriately.

Occasionally people will say to me that the Jews complain too much about their sufferings in the past. Shouldn’t we all look more to the future? Usually I reply that if we had lost five or six million of our co-religionists only sixty years ago, after many centuries of intermittent oppression of our minority status, then our sensitivities would be quite different too. I have visited Dachau and Auschwitz; terrible reminders of an unspeakable evil that must never be repeated. It is sobering to think that similar sufferings continued in the Soviet Gulags until fairly recently. In this life evil is never eliminated permanently. 

These different sensitivities were brought home to me recently in trying to develop my views on the proposed anti-discrimination legislation in Victoria. My principal legal adviser was a brilliant young Jewish lawyer, a partner in his firm. While we weren’t exactly of one mind when I did take a public position, I was forced to modify my position and certainly came to understand more adequately the attitudes of a smaller minority in a culture which still has a Christian majority and a good deal of Christian instinct, sometimes for ill as well as good, about it. 

I know there are significant differences in the Jewish community too about how effective legislation can be in battling prejudice and discrimination as there are in every section of the community. But I am not opposed to limited, tight legislation outlawing incitement to racial or religious hatred. 

It has been remarked that the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel both changed public opinion in the Western world towards the Jewish People. These were powerful influences on Catholics too; but a particular catalyst for improved relations on the Catholic side came from Pope John Paul XXIII and the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). 

John XXIII unleashed forces that he never dreamed of; he had no developed programme for where he wanted the Council to go; but he had realised, and truly, that the Catholic Church was caught in a suit of defensive armour, which was heavy, and sometimes a hindrance and ineffective in defence as well as attack. The Council provoked a cultural revolution in the Catholic community in the Western world, led by middle order functionaries more than the masses (unlike Mao’s cultural revolution), which has sparked great losses in some countries a but there is no doubt that its encouragement of ecumenism among Christians by legitimate Catholic participation, and encouraging inter-faith dialogue and co-operation has been a blessing in every sense.   

As Pope John Paul II said at Assisi in 1986: “Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others”. 

I have participated in some of these multi-faith celebrations, as recently as last Monday in the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings for the Centenary of Federation. Afterwards I turned to Rabbi John Levi, who was sitting immediately behind me, and said “Well, the Jewish contribution was the best”.  And my communications adviser said to me after: “Yes, and the Christian contribution was probably the weakest”. 

For the Jubilee last year we had a memorial service for the victims of the Holocaust in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a number of Jews who were present claimed it was among the most beautiful they had attended.

We need to keep talking together; something that will remain a minority activity. But the attitudes of leaders, official or unofficial, are important in shaping the underlying attitudes of many others, community members and fellow travellers.

We need to keep speaking together, so that we respectfully listen to one another. This is not a ploy to get a message across; nor does it mean that we must agree. Nor does it mean that religious discussion has to abandon claims to truth. We are not condemned to relativism through speaking together; nor are we tacitly recognising that one religion is as good as another; not even claiming that religion is like musical taste, something that is quite difficult to validate!

Recently a man called Ulrich Schoen listed five aims in such a dialogue or conversation:

1) to dissolve [sic; resolve?] misunderstandings;

2) to improve relationships and know we are then better;

3) to lessen fear and suspicion;

4) to deepen faith in one’s own religion;

5) to create greater unity and co-operation;

All of these seem to me to be worthwhile for present purposes.

Let me now list a few areas where we might be able to co-operate effectively:

a) to defend and promote belief in the one true God, the unutterable mystery of love. The growth of irreligion in Australia is most significant religious change over the last fifty years, and is part of the modern spread of secularism.

Catholics are not one people like Jews, but a great Church does have a cultural and historical momentum and modern bureaucracies can keep a shell performing efficiently, or seeming to do so. 

The denunciation of prophets bears on this challenge.

Psalm 24 peaks of a “man with clean hands and pure heart standing on the mountain of the Lord”. 

In an age devoted to money and sometimes to sexual irresponsibility, the capacity to believe can atrophy. A significant challenge here!

b) Another important area of common effort could be the defence of the family. Patterns of divorce and remarriage; living in partnerships, of children affected by divorce; of increasing numbers of homeless children.

Not difficult to list the challenges, but more difficult to devise effective strategies.

Often not realised is that no country in the Western world is producing a sufficient number of children to keep the population stable. Countries like Russia and Romania, Italy and Spain have started on a process of dramatic population decline.  

Jews and Christians might cooperate together to stress the blessings that children are the continuing importance of motherhood. A bit politically incorrect to do this, but it will be increasingly necessary.

c) Last night Rabbi David mentioned the dialogue between a Rabbi and the King of the Khazars, who pointed out that at that time Jews did not have political power and so were not exposed to the temptations of that power.

That is no longer the case in Israel. I am completely supportive of Israel’s right to exist peacefully and regret that the recent initiative for peace has been squandered.

I am not going to comment particularly on developments there; I do not know the scene well enough and my area of responsibility is the Sydney Archdiocese.

But Jewish conduct of that necessary struggle will impinge on the situation of Jews throughout the world; the battle for world opinion is mightily important and racists will try to exploit every ambiguity and especially any explicit injustice.

Christians too regret the steady exodus of fellow Christians from so many parts of the Middle East, forced to migrate because of constant hostile pressures.

During the last 30 or 40 years there has been a significant reduction in the amount of Christian antisemitism.  We thank God for that. To adapt to our circumstances the word of Martin Luther King “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”. Our fortunes, as brothers, are inextricably linked.

The present Pope, John Paul II, has also contributed significantly to the progress and consolidation of Jewish-Christian relations. His visit to the synagogue in Rome, his successful visit to Israel last year; the 1994 Vatican recognition of the State of Israel. By coincidence I was in Rome and present at Castel Gandolfo when the Israeli ambassador first presented his credentials. All these things have helped.

There is no doubt that his years at Wadowice at school with the local Jewish boys and girls; playing together in the same soccer team; seeing their dispersion and execution played an essential role in his leadership in this area.

A particularly poignant moment was when the Pope prayed at the Temple Wall and I will conclude with the written prayer he left in a crevice in this wall:

“God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your Name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those, who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant.”

 And what, if anything, has this noted Australian intellectual to say on Islam (a creed, incidentally, which has seen a marked increase in child marriages recently, but which evaded scrutiny by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which spent years probing .
‘Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses and obscure cults — along with sporting groups and the entertainment industry’.)

Well, in a talk some years ago entitled “Can Islam and the Western democracies live together peacefully?” (full text here) he

indicated that “Views on this question range from näive optimism to bleakest pessimism,” but that with a far better understanding of Islam and current developments by Christians and world leaders a peaceful co-existence might be achieved.

Pell notes that the optimists “point to the roots Islam has in common with Judaism and Christianity and the worship the three great monotheistic religions offer to the one true God. There is also the common commitment that Muslims and Christians have to the family and to the defence of life, and the record of co-operation in recent decades between Muslim countries, the Holy See, and countries such as the United States in defending life and the family at the international level, particularly at the United Nations.”

However, Pell continues, “On the pessimistic side of the equation, concern begins with the Koran itself. In my own reading of the Koran, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages”.

The senior Catholic Cardinal warns that the claims of Muslim tolerance of religious minorities are “largely mythical.” He emphasizes history has clearly shown that, “Considered strictly on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for far-reaching renovation is severely limited.” However, Pell adds that the human factor of many Muslims being uncomfortable with the violence and harsh intolerance of traditional Islamic practices provides hope for positive change as has occurred in more moderate Muslim nations.

The secularists in the West, indicates Pell, are the mostly poorly equipped to comprehend and respond to today’s explosion of Islamic violence and power. That is because the issue is predominantly one of religion which the secularists do not understand. Pell says, “one example of the secular incomprehension of religion is the blithe encouragement of large scale Islamic migration into Western nations, particularly in Europe.”

Pell emphasizes that the issue is one of religion and can ultimately only be satisfactorily addressed by religion, rather than politics or material power. The vacuum created by the collapse of religious faith in the West has made it especially vulnerable to conquest by a large, strongly committed religious movement.

“Radicalism,” says Pell, “whether of religious or non-religious inspiration, has always had a way of filling emptiness” and if we are going to help moderate forces within Islam the personal consequences of religious faith need to be taken more seriously. Secularism, and the emptiness and despair that it spawns, is “no match for Islam,” warns the Cardinal.

The “disastrous fall in fertility rates,” adds Pell, is “The most telling sign that Western democracy suffers a crisis of confidence”. He provides startling statistics indicating how Islam is easily taking over the West simply by having more children and the West is dying from its suicidal abortion and contraceptive practices.

Pell warns that the issues must be discussed and that participants in “useful dialogue” must “grapple with the truth and in this issue of Islam and the West the stakes are too high for fundamental misunderstandings.”

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