Cardinal Pell and squirming Catholics

According to the movie Love Story, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Typical Hollywood fluff, you might say. Yet the best answer to that asininity was given by a Hollywood all-star, the late, great Charlton Heston. Asked the secret of what would eventually become his 64-year long marriage to Lydia, Chuck Heston replied, “Learning to say five words: ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong.’”  

It’s a lesson that seems especially hard to digest these days, at all points along the polarized spectrums of political and ecclesiastical opinion. One gang that finds it impossible to admit error is the Australian Left, which is still conducting a war of calumny against Cardinal George Pell even after his acquittal by Australia’s High Court of spurious charges the Aussie Left may well have had a hand in concocting. That stubbornness extends to the Catholic subdivision of the Aussie Left, as a recent review in The Australian of the cardinal’s prison diary by Gerard Windsor, a longtime campaigner for Catholic Lite, suggests.

Mr. Windsor gracefully admits that, in Prison Journal: Volume I – The Cardinal Makes His Appeal (Ignatius Press), “there is no self-pity, just the assumption that the wrong eventually will be righted, that God knows what he’s doing, and that the suffering involved can be put to fruitful use.” Windsor admires the cardinal’s heroic resolve in jail, which he rightly attributes to the depth of George Pell’s faith. The first volume of what will be a multi-volume work centers on the cardinal’s hope, eventually frustrated, for vindication by a state appellate court; Mr. Windsor seems to have shared that hope, for he notes that he was one of two people not “on the conservative wavelength” whose supportive letter the cardinal discusses in his diary. 

Full marks, then, to Gerard Windsor for discerning what he describes in his review as a “miscarriage of justice.” We can assume that Mr. Windsor was pleased when justice was finally done and the Australian High Court did what that state appellate court inexplicably failed to do, given the emptiness of the prosecution’s case against the cardinal: quash the trial court’s guilty verdict, effectively reprimand the trial jury and the majority of the appellate court, and enter a verdict of acquittal. 

But then (to riff on Love Story), the maxim “Being Left means never having to say you’re sorry” kicks in, and Mr. Windsor’s review skids off the road into a rant about Pell the “warrior Prince” who continues to “wage war” from jail. That war is fought against the “militant secularists” the cardinal believes conspired against him, and “against his fellow Catholics:” an ecclesiastical vendetta conducted, according to Mr. Windsor, “with even greater determination.” Windsor is thus offended by the cardinal’s description of the Catholic Lite Brigade as “the bland leading the bland,” which Windsor regards as a “vacuous slur” from “the mike-hogging uncle in the family.”  

Australian public life is a contact sport, and it ill behooves Mr. Windsor (evidently an eager entrant in the Epithet Derby) to complain when Cardinal Pell speaks his mind robustly, as he was and is wont to do. That, Mr. Windsor says, makes “liberal Catholics squirm.” But isn’t that Catholic Lite squirming a form of surrender to the shibboleths of the secular Left and its culture of lifestyle libertinism? There are honorable exceptions, of course, but “liberal Catholics” have been notably absent in Australia (and elsewhere) from the battle against the Left’s determination to establish, with the force of law, what amounts to a new religion: the religion of the Self, in which the human person is reduced to a bundle of morally equivalent desires, the satisfaction of which is the primary function of government. 

That ersatz religion – which underwrites everything from the abortion license to legalized euthanasia and physician assisted suicide to the LGBT political agenda – will eventually settle for nothing less than criminalizing the biblical and Christian idea of the human person. Indeed, that effort is already underway in the Australian state of Victoria (where Cardinal Pell was maliciously prosecuted) and it’s implicit in the Biden administration’s promotion of gender ideology and the Newspeak-redolent “Equality Act.”  

Mr. Windsor admits that “secular animosity” toward the Church and the Catholic idea of what makes for human flourishing “does exist.” But he doesn’t seem to grasp the virulence embedded in that animosity or the need for courageous bishops to fight it. One wonders if that blind spot is a result of too much squirming about truth-telling, and too little willingness to reconsider and then say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”

Featured image by Catholic News Agency

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.