An Interview with His Eminence George Cardinal Pell

Perspectives from "Down Under"
(From the Summer 2008 Edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter)


Q: You are known for your interest in Catholic education, and were the Director of Aquinas College in Australia for a number of years. Why is Catholic education so important for the Church and for society?

A: I don't think I'll be saying anything that you don't well understand here at Thomas Aquinas College. I think that Catholic education is characterized by both faith and reason. Yet, in Australia, as in the States, we Catholics are a minority. So, if we wish to talk to the majority around us, what we have in common is the use of reason.

Also, in the Western world, we Catholics have a marvelous intellectual tradition. I think it was St. Bernardine of Siena who used the phrase that is now famous, saying something to the effect of "Standing on the shoulders of giants, we can see much further than we would if we were just standing by ourselves." That is the advantage that our faith gives us in intellectual things and why I stand four-square with what you are trying to do here at Thomas Aquinas College.

Q: When you speak about "standing on the shoulders of giants," would it be correct to assume that you would consider St. Thomas Aquinas one of those giants?

A: Yes, absolutely. In the seminary, I followed a course of scholastic philosophy, but we didn't do nearly enough of St. Thomas and studied too many secondary authors. The training was somewhat arid and impersonal, and it needed to be reformed and brought up to date. So, in my mind there is no doubt that the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas is the great Catholic intellectual tradition that has been espoused again by the popes since Leo XIII, and while Pope Benedict might be more an Augustinian than a Thomist, in a thousand different ways we are indebted to Thomas. In the area of philosophy that I have studied more than others, namely moral philosophy, I think the perspectives of Aquinas, as in many others, are indispensable.

Today, with post-modernists and others who are not sure there is such a thing as truth or that there are truths to be known, it is even more important that young people realize that there are truths and that they can be known. Although life is a great mystery, we are not completely lost in a fog. There are the lights of truth.

This is why I was so impressed with the Class Speaker today at Commencement, Joseph Thompson; I was very impressed with his talk. For a young man, his was a wise address.

Q: You referred just now to your own seminary training, saying you would have preferred to have read fewer secondary sources. What do you think is the importance of reading primary texts?

A: For somebody who spent nearly all his time (until the last year of his studies in philosophy) studying what I would describe as secondary texts, I can say that most people who are commentators do not write nearly as well or as profoundly as the great writers. One of the principal strengths of the Thomas Aquinas College course of studies is that you are dealing with the primary sources—with the great writers who have built Western civilization. I think that's a marvelous thing because you have immediate access. There is no filtering or censoring.

I'm not saying that commentators can't build on that; they clarify and can be very useful. I think there is no substitute, however, if you are going to really know an area, for the study of primary sources. Now, in the case of Aquinas…he depends a lot on Aristotle, but he developed the whole system of thought so substantially that he very much became a primary source in his own right.

Q: Could you elaborate on the remarks you made concerning conscience in your Commencement talk today about St. John Fisher?

A: More and Fisher died, certainly, for Christ, but they also died for the Catholic understanding of the Church. They died for the papacy. They died for things Catholic.

Today, in our liberal Western society, in which so many of the opinion-makers, even more than the politicians, are secular, the supreme virtue is tolerance because there are so many areas where we do not agree. So, if you have a claim to absolute truth like Catholicism, like Christianity, and like Islam, our enemies claim you are more likely to fight about it as a result of that.

In parallel with that, because Catholics are minorities in most parts of the English-speaking world, and serious Catholics are a smaller minority again, the pressures of the majority of society are constantly upon us in all sorts of areas. Often these touch the areas of sexuality, marriage, life, and sometimes social justice. Instead of simply confessing that we don't live up to Christian standards, sometimes people try to redefine those standards. To do that, they appeal to something they've invented called the "primacy of conscience."

To justify this notion, they occasionally appeal to the Second Vatican Council, which spoke of the relationship between the state and the individual conscience—that it can't coerce us into believing a particular truth. But the Second Vatican Council never spoke in any great detail about the relationship between the Magisterium and the individual conscience.

There is a lot that might be said on that, but the "primacy of conscience" is not one way out of the problem because, in practice, everybody draws the line. Nobody believes in the "primacy of conscience," as a matter of fact. Very, very few people go to bat for Hitler because he might have been sincere in his beliefs.

The truth has primacy, whereas conscience is a vector of activities in a typically Thomistic sort of approach, whereby we try to identify what is morally true, what actions are good, and what actions are bad. We call it "forming our conscience."

Those who appeal to the "primacy of conscience" (and there is quite a body of them in Australia), never speak about spiritual blindness, but there is such a reality. This is manifestly true. The beatitudes speak of the "pure in heart" seeing God, and I think, too, the "pure of heart" are much more likely to see moral issues clearly. You know, self-interest is blinding and sometimes can be completely blinding; and habits of sin distort our vision, too—badly.

Q: You spoke in your Baccalaureate Mass Homily of a renewal of the Church that is underway now. What do you see coming about, and what are the roles of lay people and priests?

A: People speak about the "John Paul II Generation," and there is no doubt that the late Holy Father was able to inspire many young people to follow the Catholic way, to follow the Cross of Christ. A lot of these were World Youth Day people. I'm not saying they're a majority of the young people, but there are a goodly number of them. They have challenged the Church to use their talents, to prepare them and direct them, and to channel their energies into productive areas.

That is one reason why tertiary education is so enormously important. In Sydney, I have significantly increased the resources we have devoted to chaplaincies at our secular universities, and I have encouraged Catholic university life.

You know, one of the reasons I came to support Thomas Aquinas College is exactly because I believe you're doing a good thing. I've met some of your young people, and you have manifestly wonderful young people. You are equipping them to survive intellectually. You are giving them the capacity to participate usefully in the dialogue that has got to take place in our society. I mean we can't just retire into our ghettos and let the rest of the world be. We've got to engage the society. And I think we'll get a good hearing because the permissive society, as it is called somewhat misleadingly, doesn't make people happy.

Q: You have been President of Vox Clara for the past six years. What is the work of this commission and why is it important for the Church?

A: Vox Clara is a commission of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. There is a new Roman Missal that was published in Latin now 5 or 6 years ago, and obviously it has to be translated into English. The Missal contains all the prayers of the Mass, both its propers and commons. (By contrast, the Lectionary contains the readings from the Old and New Testatments.)

The ambition is to have one English translation for the whole world. So, led by a group of bishops, the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has commissioned translators to do the work. They are preparing the translation, and the Vox Clara has been examining their work and advising the Congregation for Divine Worship on its suitability and, especially, on its fidelity to the Latin text.

Now, it is much easier to paraphrase the Latin. But it is challenging, especially with the old texts which are so spare and concise—it is challenging to translate them with complete accuracy into beautiful English. Some people thought it just couldn't be done. Well, the new translation won't be to the satisfaction of everybody, but I think the new translation will demonstrate that it can be done, and it has been done in a way that is an immense improvement.

In the past, translations would be made, and the work would be completed. Only then would they be sent to the Congregation for Divine Worship to examine them. If they had been on the wrong track from the beginning, that often resulted in a long hold-up, and once in a while a complete rewrite.

By contrast, Vox Clara has been examining the texts as they are being produced and presenting our advice to the Holy See. Therefore, rather than the Holy See waiting until the end and then perhaps holding everything up by asking ICEL to re-do it, we have, I think, obviated delays at the latter stages by making our observations very early on.

I think the quality of the translations that have been coming to us for the last few years is infinitely better than the quality of some of the translations that we had early on, which were much looser and less faithful.

While the work of Vox Clara has consumed an enormous amount of time for all of us bishops and cardinals who come from a number of countries, it is actually one of the most high-powered and effective committees on which I've ever worked. It has also been a pleasant and wonderful experience for me. So, while the work has been hard, it is very worthwhile.

This work is most important for the Church. If you write a learned article, it might be read by a thousand people. If you write a newspaper article, it might be read once by hundreds of thousands of people. But the liturgy, the texts-especially the Sunday texts-will be heard by millions and millions and millions of people, time and time and time again.

There is another secondary reason for why it's important: In many parts of Africa and Asia the people doing the translations into their vernacular languages won't know Latin well. Some of them might not know Latin at all, and many, therefore, will rely on the English. So, it is important that we have it accurate so that the imprecisions are not multiplied when they go into another language.

We tried with the people's parts of the Mass to change them as little as possible because people generally like what they're used to. (There will be more changes in the part said by the priest.) So, while there will be some changes, the changes we will introduce will be nothing like the order or number of changes that were introduced after Vatican II with the introduction of the Novus Ordo. In addition, there will be a program of explanation to prepare the people for the new translations. A lot will be taken on easily, though there may be some elements that might resist. For the Confiteor, for instance, we'll go back to the old way and say "Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." The people will come to that without any problem.

Q: What you are describing sounds like a refinement of the initial changes?

A: Yes. It is a refinement or a purification of the original translation. It's not a back-flip or an about-turn; it's a re-orientation. We're now heading in the direction in which we should have been going from the beginning. And of course, we're like everything else, a bit wiser now than we were then. We learn from our experience.

Q: The phrase that comes to mind is lex orandi, lex credendi ("as they pray, so will they believe)."

A: Yes, that is the underlying premise of our work, because these prayers will now reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching, especially on matters like redemption, sin, the purity and goodness of God, and God's transcendence. Time and time again, in these prayers, we will have presented the fullness of Catholic faith, rather than having it occasionally trimmed or cut down or even, sometimes, a bit distorted. There is no doubt in my mind that some of the old translations were "ideologized;" the poor translations were really ideological changes. A classic area is the feminizing of some texts

Q: What are your hopes for World Youth Day and the Holy Father's visit to Australia this summer?

A: First of all, I hope for a spiritual renewal and a spiritual strengthening, certainly for our young Australian Catholics. In addition, I have spoken in quite a number of countries around the world, inviting young people to come, and even at this late stage, I do this here, with the Thomas Aquinas College family. I would invite them to come not just to strengthen their own faith, but to help strengthen the faith of young Australian Catholics. I think they understand that; it's a kind of solidarity. You know, it works like that.

I took 400 pilgrims from Melbourne to the Rome World Youth Day, and we stayed in two Roman suburbs, you might call them, quite a ways outside of Rome. I heard later that the Italians there, perhaps the young Italians, were very much impressed, strengthened, and helped by the faith of our young pilgrims. That will happen in Australia, too.

Also, I'm saying in Australia that this is an explicitly Catholic celebration, but it is offered to all young Australians, especially the young Australians who don't have a set of religious convictions and are looking for something. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if a large number of non-Catholic youth comes along, especially for the big public events, to see what it's about.

For example, we will be having an enactment of the Stations of the Cross on the Friday afternoon in Sydney. In order to help our non-Catholic Christians, some of whom are deeply immersed in the Scriptures, all the Stations are taken from Scripture; whereas in our traditional Stations of the Cross they, for example, include Veronica, who does not appear in the Scriptures. But we have taken one of the Scriptural versions of the Stations, and will enact it.

Going back to what we were saying before about primary sources…if we can present the figure of Jesus as Jesus is, with His story, I think this will be the supreme, teaching moment of the World Youth Day—the Way of the Cross. The Holy Father will be there for it, and he'll start it off, and we will process around the shore of Sydney harbor, which, I think, will be quite spectacular.

It is part of the traditional practice of World Youth Day to have the Stations of the Cross on the Friday, and it's interesting that all the roles are played by young, local people. We have an outstanding range of young people, but those playing Jesus and Mary are really exceptional.

I insisted, especially for the major roles in our Stations, that our actors had to be believers. I just didn't want good actors that could enter into the part; I wanted them to believe. And I think we've met that criterion.

I've been to three World Youth Days, and they are marvelous. It is so energizing to see tens of thousands of happy, young adults. It is like coming here to Thomas Aquinas College and seeing your graduating class. As an outsider, I only really knew a bit about the place, but you can recognize whether the young people are basically good and happy or whether they're disaffected. And it's all the difference in the world! It makes older people like me feel so much better.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: I want to repeat just how impressed I've been, and perhaps add one detail: how impressed I've been by the beauty of the place. The buildings are beautiful! And, for example, this garden is beautiful; the gardens are full of beautiful flowers. I'm sure it creeps into the souls of the young people who study here that they are in beautiful surroundings. Truth, goodness, and beauty really are the work of the Creator.