Cardinal Pell at 80

Fifteen months ago, it looked as if Cardinal George Pell might spend his 80th birthday in prison. A malicious trolling expedition by the police department of the State of Victoria in his native Australia had led to the cardinal’s indictment on manifestly absurd charges of “historic sexual abuse.” His first trial ended with a hung jury heavily in favor of acquittal; but because of a court-imposed media blackout on the trial, the public did not know that the defense had shredded the prosecution’s case by demonstrating that the alleged crimes couldn’t have happened how, when, and where the complainant said they’d happened. The cardinal’s retrial ended in an incomprehensible conviction, which was followed by an even more incomprehensible (and feckless) rejection of the cardinal’s appeal. Happily – for the sake of an innocent man’s liberty and the reputation of Australia’s justice system – the country’s High Court unanimously quashed the guilty verdict on April 7, 2020, and entered a judgment of “innocent” in the case of Pell v. The Queen

Cardinal Pell did not waste his 404 days in prison, most of them in solitary confinement. He wrote a daily journal that has become something of a modern spiritual classic; Ignatius Press has been publishing it in three volumes, the last of which will appear in October. Through his Prison Journal, thousands of people around the world have discovered the real George Pell: a man of rock-solid faith, keen intelligence, deep compassion for the confusions that beset the human race, and a determination to live out the priestly ministry to which he committed himself when he was ordained by Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian (runner-up to John XXIII in the conclave of 1958) on December 16, 1966.

I’m happy that so many others have now discovered the truth about this good and great man, not least because he and I have been friends since he spent his post-ordination summer in my Baltimore parish, in between his Roman theological studies and his doctoral work at Oxford. Over that half-century, we’ve discussed just about everything. And while the cardinal has not converted me to the virtues of cricket, we are of one mind on so many other things that we’ve worked in close harness on several occasions. 

Thus it strikes me as providential that Cardinal Pell’s 80th birthday falls while the universal Church is being roiled by the German “Synodal Way: a process that, absent a decisive Roman intervention (and perhaps even in the face of that), seems likely to confirm that institutional Catholicism in Germany is in a state of apostasy. Providential, because without George Pell’s leadership as archbishop of Melbourne and then cardinal archbishop of Sydney, Australia might well have become the kind of ecclesiastical disaster area Germany is today – although the Aussies would have gotten there 25 years earlier.   

His enemies will never admit it, but Cardinal George Pell saved the Church in Australia from dissolving into a Liquid Catholicism indistinguishable from Liberal Protestantism. He did so by his defense of Vatican II as renewal within tradition; by his reform of the priesthood and his care for sexual abuse victims in the dioceses he led; by his unwavering support of Catholic orthodoxy in the teeth of fierce cultural headwinds that cowed many of his brother bishops; by championing serious Catholic intellectual life in a variety of initiatives; and by hosting Sydney’s World Youth Day-2008, which evangelically energized young Australian Catholics as Denver’s World Youth Day-1993 had done for young American Catholics. Without George Pell’s leadership and his willingness to stand for the truth against vicious criticism, Catholicism Down Under in 2021 might well look like the moribund Church in much of Germany today, but absent the Germans’ vast, tax-supported wealth. 

Cardinal Pell’s work to clean the Augean stables of Vatican finance remains to be completed and questions about possible links between that work and his prosecution remain to be answered. Nonetheless, the cardinal’s grace under extraordinary pressure and the dignity with which he conducted himself before, during, and after his imprisonment have made him one of the most influential elders in the Catholic Church today. That he lost his vote in a future conclave on June 8 does not mean that he will be sidelined in the really consequential discussions of the Church’s future. He will be very much at the center of those conversations, now wielding the moral authority he has rightly won as a contemporary confessor.

The man I have known and cherished since the summer of 1967 was not built for quiescence. His voice will be heard. And it will be heard where it counts.    

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”