Will Cardinal Pell’s fall prompt soul-searching in the Catholic Church?

The Spectator

March 1, 2019

By Theo Hobson

I have heard surprisingly few Catholic responses to this week’s news of the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. I guess those who are not in denial are in shock. Let me interrupt the stunned silence with an outsider’s perspective.

This is not just another paedophile priest story – Pell was a key figure in the Vatican under the last three popes – and a major public face of the church’s moral conservatism. So will his fall bring a new level of Catholic soul-searching, a new critique of the Church’s entire moral culture?

Pope Francis himself often seems to call for such critique. Last week he warned against the potential dangers of moral rigidity, while speaking about the child sex abuse scandal in general. ‘Behind rigidity something always lies hidden’ he said. ‘In many cases, a double life’. It’s a line he has used repeatedly in the last few years – while upholding the Church’s moral teachings, he has urged priests to interpret them in a flexible, humane way.

Some people will reply to this with annoyed bafflement – if the pope sees moral rigidity as dubious, shouldn’t he be in a different job? For surely priestly celibacy is a form of rigidity that has served as a cover for paedophilia? It’s a bit like his oddly detached response when asked for his view on homosexuality: ‘Who am I to judge?’

To liberal Christians like me, it’s a bit dubious for the pope to play ‘good cop’ so charmingly. Roman Catholicism seems wedded to a flawed moral conservatism, and an excessive emphasis on rules. Surely Christianity emerged in opposition to rigid moral laws, we protest.

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