Awkward? Or wise?

Asked to name books that gave me the greatest intellectual jolt in recent decades, I’d quickly cite two.

N.T Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) accepts every grand-slam bid from the guild of Scriptural deconstructionists and skeptics, calmly replies, “I’ll see you and raise you” – and then takes the game with a flourish, leaving the unbiased reader convinced of, well, the resurrection of the Son of God.

Then there is The Sources of Christian Ethics, by Servais Pinckaers, OP (Catholic University of America Press). If I could put one book into the hands of every (and I mean every) combatant in the post-Amoris Laetitia debate, Father Pinckaers’ masterpiece would be it. Why? Because so much of the controversy over Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation reflects the hard rules/soft rules argument about the Christian moral life that Pinckaers explodes. The moral life, he insists, is not first and foremost a matter of rules; it’s a matter of beatitude. The Sermon on the Mount is the Magna Carta of Christian ethics. Yes, there are rules, or moral norms, but the Church teaches them in order to lead stumbling humanity toward happiness by helping us grow in the virtues that make for human flourishing.

The recovery of this insight – that beatitude is the goal of the moral life and that the virtues are at the heart of Christian morality – is one of the great achievements of post-Vatican II Catholic theology. Too many churchmen seem unaware of it, though, and so they remain frozen in time, trapped in the hard rules/soft rules debate. Thus it’s been interesting in recent months to see renewed references to the moral theology of Father Bernhard Häring, C.SS.R. Häring, an anti-Nazi hero during World War II, had a significant influence on the immediate post-Vatican II period; yet, he too seemed strangely imprisoned in a pre-Vatican II mindset. He was something of a rules-centered ethicist before the Council; he remained something of a rules-centered ethicist after the Council. What changed was his approach to the rules: he was a rigorist before the Council and a laxist afterwards. But the rules-centered paradigm was the same.

Which is to say, Father Häring missed the Pinckaers Revolution. And judging from the commentary in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, so did a lot of others, not least among those who think of themselves as the party of Catholic progress.

This is very unfortunate. The Church can and must do a better job of explaining that, behind every “no” the Church says to this, that, or the other human failing or foible, there is a resounding “yes:” a “yes” to beatitude, a “yes” to human flourishing, a “yes” to noble living, a “yes” to a particular virtue. Grasp the “yes,” and each “no” begins to make sense as an invitation to live the virtues that make for a truly fulfilled life. The Pinckaers approach to the moral life gets us to “yes.” The rules-based approach – in its hard (rigorist) or soft (laxist) form – finds it hard to do that.

I might add that there isn’t a shred of empirical evidence to suggest that the lax-rules approach is pastorally successful in bringing the bored, alienated, indifferent, or confused back to a full and sustained practice of the faith, whereas there’s lot of evidence that the living parts of the Church are those that have embraced the Pinckaers approach – which had a decisive influence on John Paul II’s encyclical on the renewal of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. But that’s a tale for another time.

I was reminded of the Pinckaers/Häring divide when, a few months back, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster told a meeting in London that the Church would “persist” in being “awkward” when challenged by the many forms of the sexual revolution. But is that quite the right image? Is the Church being “awkward” (or “obstinate,” another term the cardinal used)?

The 21st-century Church that proclaims certain moral truths in the face of sharp cultural opposition isn’t being different for the sake of being different or mule-headed; and it isn’t being deliberately clumsy. The Church of the New Evangelization is saying, “Here’s what we think makes for the happiness you seek. Here are the virtues that make for that happiness, according to millennia of experience. Let’s talk about it.” That’s true pastoral accompaniment.

COMING UP: Fifty years of friendship with Cardinal Pell

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Msgr. Thomas A. Whelan, my pastor when I was growing up in Baltimore, was a striking character: Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald; former Wall Street broker; high-ranking Army chaplain in World War II; world traveler; founding rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The latter two roles led to some creative thinking about arranging “coverage” at the cathedral during the summer, when he could be found abroad: one by one and year by year, Msgr. Whelan brought to Baltimore newly-ordained Australian priests who had studied in Rome, wanted to visit the U.S., and could use some money.

And so, precisely fifty years ago this month, a tall, gangly Aussie named George Pell entered my life. By the end of August 1967 he had become a fast friend of my family. Little did he nor I know that the next half-century would lead us into the same foxholes in various ecclesiastical battles; or to a shared friendship with a Polish priest, pope, and saint; or into synods, consistories, papal elections, and other adventures. We’re both a little slower and a little heavier than we were in the summer of ’67, when, if memory serves, I helped introduce the future cardinal to Frisbee at the beach. But the friendship is even closer and it is one of the great blessings of my life.

That summer, Father Pell was heading for doctoral studies in history at Oxford after ordination in Rome from the Pontifical Urban University (horsemeat was a staple on the menu in his day). His intellectual gifts might have marked him out for a scholarly career. But Providence (and John Paul II) had other plans, and rather than teaching history full-time, George Pell made history, becoming the defining figure of 21st-century Catholicism in Australia. 

Had Pell not become archbishop of Melbourne, and later cardinal-archbishop of Sydney, it’s a reasonable bet that Australian Catholicism today would resemble the Irish Church from which the Church Down Under largely descends: scandal-ridden, demoralized, intellectually shoddy, and somewhere out on the far periphery of the New Evangelization. Thanks to Pell’s courage in facing-down the Australian forces of Catholic Lite, the Church in Oz today has a fighting chance.

Cardinal Pell’s accomplishment has not been cost-free. Australia is a contact-sport country, and that national tendency to hit hard extends to both the Aussie media and to intra-ecclesiastical life. George Pell’s enemies, and their media lapdogs, have not caviled to lie about him for decades. Perhaps the most absurd charge was that this man, whose sartorial style rings up “Salvation Army Thrift Shop,” kept a house full of Church finery to satisfy his vanity. As it happens (and as I wrote at the time), I had just stayed in the cardinal’s house when this nonsense appeared; I hadn’t seen a vestment anywhere, but had noted thousands of books and the current issues of every major opinion journal in the English-speaking world.

More recently, the calumnies have become much darker, as the man who designed and implemented the Australian Church’s first vigorous response to the sexual abuse of the young has been charged with being an abuser. His friends are confident that the charges, like other fanciful allegations the cardinal has consistently denied and of which he has been exonerated, will be shown to be gross falsehoods – not least because we believe Pell is telling the truth when he flatly and forcefully denies the current accusations.

There is a new twist to this dirty business, however. Since 2014, Cardinal Pell has been responsible for draining the Vatican financial swamp of corruptions that had become epidemic, ingrained, and virtually institutionalized. Given the stakes and the sleaziness involved, it would not be surprising to learn that some who would be most adversely effected by Pell’s success in Vatican financial reform may have been generating false accusations now in play in the Australian judicial system. Australia, it seems, is not the only place where hardball is played, and in very unsavory forms.

Cardinal George Pell is a big man in every sense of the word and his stamina under assault is entirely admirable. Its deepest root, however, is not his native combativeness but Pell’s faith. Its solidity, and the courage to which that rock-solid faith gives rise, may be what aggravates his foes the most.

It’s also what inspires his legion of friends, among whom I am honored to number myself – for fifty years and counting.