THE feast day of St Stephen falls on 26 December – Boxing Day in former British Empire nations. The symbolism and timing of that is perfect. For millennia, the Church has had to solve numerous calendar conundrums, many of such exquisite sensitivity that getting the science and sums right mattered to a geo-political degree. Testament to its now global efficacy, the calendar of Pope Gregory XIII has been in use since 1572. No single institution has more experience investing days and dates with meaning. For Stephen the protomartyr, something special was in order and the day after Christmas fitted the bill. After the sacred story-telling, feasting and socialising, Boxing Day dawns with a “What now?” feel to it.
For most of us, the answer is delicious leftovers, watching the Test match, shopping, backyard cricket or just reclaiming mental space after all that family merriment (whether enjoyed or endured). Religiously, for those so inclined, the answer to the same question is given in the calendar and is meant to shock: martyrdom. That’s quite a contrast. St Stephen’s Sanhedrin trial and violent execution prefigure the fate of the Infant Jesus. Tinsel and turkey aside, Christians are not supposed to take their eyes off the Easter prize.
The lack of will to move
Stephen was killed for speaking the truth to powerful men who didn’t want to hear it. For today’s Christians there is surprisingly little difficulty imagining themselves dragged before one of the many secular sanhedrins that order blasphemers stoned on a weekly basis. The temptation to go along to get along in a hostage culture is near overwhelming. For the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, it is also policy. The sandstone seat of Conference President, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, is St Stephen’s in Brisbane. His Christmas Message 2019 wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, let alone the ire, of anybody truly powerful.
“In Australia and around the world there is an air of uncertainty and anxiety,” he begins. There follows a Cook’s tour of safely agreed-upon bad things: “populist and nationalist ideologies” (a.k.a. democracy), “walls” (code for Donald Trump), the “inhuman treatment of migrants and refugees” (policing borders like the Vatican does) and – drum roll please – “the lack of will to move on climate change which brings droughts and fires here but floods elsewhere.” Formerly, Catholic bishops cared about blue-collar workers more than the fashionable big shots of cafe society. No more. Imagine what open borders and a Turnbull-Albanese-Bandt climate-first economy would do to Australia’s proletarian ranks. They would be anthropologically exterminated.
Archbishop Coleridge did mention the “preference for death over life in many forms” – a single helping of traditional Catholicity in an otherwise political buffet. But he didn’t spell out what he really meant. That is remarkably vague in a summary of a black year that saw various Labor governments legalise the killing of terminally ill or unwanted Australians of any age. You don’t throw Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless tarpaulin over such enormities. St Stephen would have named the crimes and the perpetrators.
Yes, various bishops issued statements opposing the left’s “voluntary assisted dying” push and ‘reforms’ of abortion law but their contributions were low-key and sank without a trace. Part of the explanation for this is gun shyness caused by the Gillard Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. The Church is now absurdly wary of speaking out on customary moral subjects, preferring to pretend à la mode preoccupations like border walls and weather are on the same doctrinal plain as foetal decapitations and doctors murdering the elderly. But they aren’t. Archbishop Daniel Mannix didn’t care about the media, ‘progressive’ opinion or even being arrested (as he was). He started two of the biggest donnybrooks in Australian history by opposing conscription (twice) and destroying communist infiltration of trades unions. By doing so, he saved countless lives and – arguably – properly constituted Australian democracy as well.
A Church of two Georges
Episcopal small target thinking in this country isn’t new, of course. Mannix’s approach came to be guzumped by the Gilroy-Sydney school of Labor-accommodating politesse. The remarkable appointment of George Pell as archbishop to first Melbourne in 1996 and then Sydney in 2001 completely disrupted the post-Movement reign of expediency by throwing the metropolitan axes of political Catholicism out of kilter. Pell was a Mannix man through and through and a disciple of St John Paul II – from whose hands he received both palliums. What is new is the disappearance of muscular – or even intellectually substantive – interventions on topics which had always been the core business of the Church. Obviously, John Paul wanted to change all that. Being intimately familiar with how Venerable Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński was treated, the Polish pope must have been aware the favour he showed might arouse hostility from within and without – as it certainly did – but not even he could have foreseen the Stalinist reaction to Pell’s prominence.
Needless to say, the Australian bishops – accommodationists to a man once again – have made no collective statement of outrage about the undeniably rigged prosecution of now Cardinal Pell. Following his conviction, Archbishop Anthony Fisher avoided controversy in classic Conference style – warning Catholics to avoid being quick to judge lest they “end up joining the demonisers or the apologists, those baying for blood, or those in denial.” Apologists for what – the rule of law? Denial of what – an internationally condemned travesty? Going one better than pox-on-both-their-houses gibberish – which is to say, one worse – was Archbishop Comensoli who told radio 3AW that Pell and his accuser were both telling the truth. Which is clearly not true. Though he is known to be sympathetic to the Cardinal’s plight (to his credit), Pope Francis has also made matters worse by attempting to make precisely this kind of subjectivist via media a quasi-dogma.
“The argument from the Netherlands, 1942 … is frighteningly apposite in, say, Victoria but believers there are not being taken away to be killed – not summarily, anyway.”
The two Georges – Bergoglio and Pell – couldn’t be less alike. For one thing, the crowd-appeasing Argentinian is beloved of the world and its flatterers. The pope is also a very humble man. Ask him – he’ll tell you. The big idea of the Georgian papacy is mestizo everything: Christ is mestizo, Mary is mestizo, theology is mestizo, the truth itself is mestizo. Although a banal, sour old man’s recrudescence of pre Wojtyla-Ratzinger relativism, this mongrelised metaphysics is more than a quirky throwback to the glory days of Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff. As Italian journalist-historian Roberto de Mattei points out, it is also an astonishingly foolhardy revival of the most intractable and damaging heresies of the patristic age.
Fear of the mob, then, teamed with post-Mannix accommodationism and a new pope’s peculiar aversion to moral clarity have coalesced as a cultural force to muffle, if not silence outright, the voice of Catholicism in the agoras and opinion arenas of Australian society. The argument from the Netherlands, 1942 – that to protect the faithful perhaps shepherds should think twice about condemning the Nazis – is frighteningly apposite in, say, Victoria but believers there are not being taken away to be killed – not summarily, anyway.
One has been taken away, however, to a literally torturous – some say internationally illegal – incarceration. That he – George Pell – was defamed, calumniated, pilloried, spat upon, hounded, set up and tormented are facts that cannot be denied. The bishops owe no respect to a notoriously corrupt state or its venal media proxies and should have said far more in defence of their brother than they did. They are ensnared in complex cultural circumstances, that’s true, but no more so than Mannix was. Students of Polish history might like to argue that Cardinal Wyszyński was no hot-head and came to a modus vivendi with authorities to protect Catholic culture despite his own imprisonment. The big difference is he did so knowing the faith of Poles was unassailable; a few concessions to make the communists feel strong was a price worth paying. The near opposite situation obtains in Australia where statism is unassailable. Here, a nomenklatura deigns to dole out a few privileges believing its triumph in culture is irreversible. The thing to remember is that modern society hates the Church; playing nice with haters by trying to sacralise their manias (like climate change) won’t change that. Just take hatred as read, speak the truth and punch on. For Christians today, every day is Boxing Day.