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George Cardinal Pell

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On October 22 nd 2003, Pope John Paul II made Archbishop George Pell of Sydney a Cardinal, a prince of the Catholic Church.

When he was Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell wrote an article in the Melbourne Catholic journal Kairos (June 28 th -July 5 th 1998) in which he said inter alia : 'It is certainly true that Our Lord is not physically present' in the Eucharist.   He went on to say that the Sacred Scriptures 'contain historical and scientific errors and misunderstandings.'   These two statements are, each of them, contrary to the Church's clear teaching.

Christ Is Physically Present In The Eucharist

That Our Lord Jesus Christ is physically present in the Blessed Eucharist is implicit in the formulation of the Council of Trent--

If anyone should deny that in the sacrament of the Most Blessed Eucharist there is contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and hence the whole Christ, but should say that he is there as under a sign or figure or in power only, let him be anathema   [ Densinger 883]

At the words of consecration Christ's supreme sacrifice on the Cross is re-enacted.   As the real physical Christ died on Calvary, so does the real physical Christ appear on the altar, the whole Christ in both species of bread and wine for it is the living Christ that we receive.   St Augustine puts it well-- It was in His flesh that Christ walked amongst us and it is His flesh that He has given us to eat for our salvation.. . [1]  Pope Paul VI spelt out the implications when he said in Mysterium Fidei [3 September 1965] after the change of the substance or nature of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and wine but the appearances under which Christ, whole and entire, in His physical 'reality' is bodily present, although not in the same way that bodies are present in a given place.   The qualification goes only to the mode in which Christ is present.   It is a real physical presence, but it differs from the normal mode of physical presence in that while Christ's substance is there, His accidents (e.g. bodily dimensions) are not.   This mode of His presence, unique as it is, is called sacramental .

Scripture Does Not Contain Historical And Scientific Errors And Misunderstandings

That Sacred Scripture does not contain error is taught by Clement VI in the letter Super Quibusdam [20.9.1351] D. 570q; by Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus [18.11.1893] D. 1951; by Benedict XV in Spiritus Paraclitus [15.9.1920] D. 2186; and by Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu [30.9.1943].   It is, moreover, implied in the teachings of the Council of Trent [8.4.1546] D. 783 and of the First Vatican Council [24.4.1870] D. 1787.   The assertion that Scripture does contain error is condemned by Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors [8.12.1864] D. 1707, by Pius X in the Decree against the Modernists, Lamentabili [3.7.1907] D. 2011, and in his encyclical against the Modernists, Pascendi [8.9.1907] D. 2102.   Pius X quotes St Augustine to great effect--

For if we once admit in that supreme monument of authority even one polite lie, no shred of those books will remain.   Whenever anyone finds anything therein that is difficult to practice or hard to believe, he will refer to this most pernicious precedent and explain it as the idea or practice of a lying author . [2]

Catholic World Report Article & Debate

In the May 2001 edition of Catholic World Report Melbourne journalist, Michael Gilchrist, waxed lyrical over the appointment of Archbishop Pell to the primatial See of Sydney [3].   In a letter to the Editor which appeared in the July edition of the same journal ex patriate Australian theologian Dr Brian Harrison O.S. was also enthusiastic and optimistic at the appointment.   But he expressed reservations over Archbishop Pell's orthodoxy in respect of the two matters in the Kairos article referred to above.

The Publisher of Catholic World Report , Fr Joseph Fessio S.J., attempted to defend Archbishop Pell against Dr Harrison's criticisms in the same edition [4].   In respect of the first matter, he sought to rely on the distinction between the mode of Christ's presence in the Eucharist and the mode of His presence during His life on earth to justify Archbishop Pell's assertion that Christ was not physically present in the Eucharist.   But since both are modes of His physical presence the argument failed.

In respect of the second, he seized upon the use by Dr Harrison of a partial quote from Dei Verbum 11 to assert that Dr Harrison had failed to spell out the Second Vatican Council fathers teaching in full from which teaching it might be inferred that the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture was limited to 'that truth which God intended for our salvation'.   Given that teaching it could not be said that Archbishop Pell was necessarily wrong in his assertion that the Scriptures 'contain historical and scientific errors and misunderstandings'.   But he did Dr Harrison less than justice in this endeavour.   For he failed to answer Dr Harrison's contention that Dei Verbum 11 was to be understood as fully in line with the Church's previous teaching as evidenced from the footnotes to Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu .

Fr Fessio concluded with the comment: Archbishop Pell's orthodoxy, I believe, remains as untarnished now as it has always been .

Reaction From Readers

Fr Fessio's efforts produced a flurry of letters from correspondents many of them supportive of Dr Harrison and, by implication, critical of Archbishop Pell and of Fr Fessio's attempts to defend him.   Some of these were reproduced in the October edition of Catholic World Report .   Fr Fessio came again to Archbishop Pell's defence but was no more effective than in his first attempt [5].   Dei Verbum 11 was a refinement of what had been expressed in the earlier magisterial teaching, according to him.   Rather than Dei Verbum 11 being interpreted in accordance with the teachings of Leo XIII and Pius XII, their teachings were to be interpreted in the light of what was said in Dei Verbum 11 .

Fr Fessio & Dei Verbum 11

It should first be observed that Fr Fessio's view contradicts the canon of literary interpretation.   In the absence of explicit comment to the contrary, footnotes are used to evidence, or to clarify, what is asserted in the text.   There is no contrary comment in the footnotes to the relevant sentence of Dei Verbum 11 .

As one of the CWR correspondents (Mr David Palm) pointed out, there is an unfortunate ambiguity in the way in which the fathers of the Second Vatican Council expressed the Church's teaching on the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture in Dei Verbum 11 .   It has been referred to already.   The provision could be understood to limit inerrancy only to that truth which God intended for our salvation--as if there might be matters in Sacred Scripture which were not true, because not intended for our salvation.

The authority for the way in which this sentence in Dei Verbum 11 is expressed is given as St Augustine in De Genesi ad litteram II, 9, 20.   St Augustine's text is quoted by St Thomas in the De Veritate, Q. 12, a. 2, which reference is also cited in the footnote.   Here it is-- Although our authors knew what shape heaven is, [the spirit] wants to speak through them only that which is useful for salvation.   St Thomas adds to this: "And to the Gospel of St John (16:13), But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth , the Gloss adds: necessary to salvation ."

How are these authorities to be read?   As indicating that the Holy Spirit would ensure that the truths He would teach through the sacred writings would be sufficient for salvation without revealing their ambit--so that there might be errors admixed but such that they would not hinder salvation?   Or as indicating that everything in those writings was necessary to salvation and was true?   The solution is to be found in another of the footnotes, St Augustine's letter to Jerome, (letter no. 82, 3), which reads-- I do not think you would want your books to be read as if they were the books of Prophets or Apostles, about whose writings, free of all error, it is not lawful to doubt.   Let us not even think such a thing.

There is a telling practical objection to the Fessio thesis.   If Sacred Scripture did contain error, how would we know where the error was?   And where the truth?   It is no answer to say that we could have recourse to the Church's magisterium.   On the contrary, the Church has already exercised her magisterium: she has said, against Archbishop Pell, that Sacred Scripture does not contain error.

*                                                 *

In a column in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph for 13 th April 2003, (Palm Sunday in that year) Archbishop Pell (as he was then still) said this--

The week begins with Christ's entry into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, which commemorates the Jews' liberation from oppression in Egypt.

The gathering was enthusiastic, shouting their welcome, spreading their cloaks for Jesus, but the crowd was rather small.   Most of them were women who had come from the country.

It probably confirmed the antagonism of Jesus' enemies, but there was no disturbance or threat to public order.   Not surprisingly, no-one claims this small triumph, this happy start to the week, had any religious or redeeming significance.   The Gospels show that Jesus knew he was likely to be killed, that the pressure from his enemies was mounting.

W hen he went on the Thursday evening to the garden at Gethsemane, in Jerusalem, to pray for strength, his closest followers slept unaware the end was near.

Jesus was captured by Roman soldiers in this garden, identified for them by a treacherous kiss from Judas Iscariot, one of his special group of 12 followers, the apostles.   Judas received thirty pieces of silver for this betrayal.   Why did he do it? .

Earlier that evening he had attended the final meal, the Last Supper, which Jesus celebrated, blessing bread and wine, turning them into his Body and Blood--the first Christian Eucharist.   This tradition is continued in nearly every Christian denomination, especially on Sundays.

In daily life, we celebrate birthdays, the days our friends were born.   Christian feast days for the saints recall the day of their death, their entry to eternal life.

In a similar reversal of common sense, we call the day on which Jesus was executed Good Friday.

I often ask senior primary-school children why the Church does this, as the killing of a good young man, about 33 years old, on false charges is a human tragedy.

There is generally a pause as they ponder this strange title.   But there is always someone who is able to reply that Jesus died to save us.

There is much in the article in this column which contradicts the plain words of Sacred Scripture and Catholic teaching.   Contrary to the Archbishop's assertions--

•  that the crowd was rather small', Matthew [21:8] says: 'there were great crowds';

•  that 'most of them were women', there is nothing in either Sacred Scripture or in tradition to support this;

•  that they were comprised of 'women who had come from the country', there is nothing to support this;

•  that 'there was no disturbance to public order', Matthew [21:10] says: 'when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil';

•  that 'no one claims this small triumph . had any religious significance,' Christ Himself said to the Pharisees: 'if these [the disciples] keep silence the very stones will cry out' [ Luke 19:40];

•  that 'the Gospels show Jesus knew he was likely to be killed,' they show that he had always known he was going to certain death.

Moreover, the consecration of bread and wine into Christ's Body and Blood is not, as he asserts, continued in nearly every Christian denomination .   There are a number of reasons why, the chief of which is that very few of the Christian denominations have validly ordained clergy who have the power to confect the Eucharist.

It is offensive for Catholics to hear their Archbishop infer that the fact that the saints' feast days mark the dates of their deaths is the reverse of common sense.   It is infinitely more offensive for us to hear that the fact that the day on which Christ was executed is called Good Friday is 'a similar reversal of common sense'.   If Archbishop Pell was using the rhetorical device of raising a doubt, he failed to resolve it.   As St Thomas says, a failure in such a context, because of the scandal it involves, is 'like leaving the lid off a sewer'.

A superficial analysis of Archbishop Pell's column might lead one to the conclusion that it was a poor attempt at a popularist exegesis.   But there is more than mere slovenliness in the way he dealt there with Catholic teaching.

Continuation Of The Mindset

For his remarks 'this tradition' of the 'Christian Eucharist . is continued in nearly every Christian denomination' reduce the action of the Catholic priest to the level of any Protestant minister blessing bread and wine.   There is no dispute that Christ is not physically present after the Protestant minister's action.   It follows inescapably that the Archbishop's view is that neither is Christ physically present in the Eucharist after the priest has confected it.

Moreover, Archbishop Pell's contradictions of the Evangelists' accounts, and his assertion of details in the events of Palm Sunday which are unsupported by anything either in the Gospels or in sacred tradition, confirm the view he expressed in his Kairos article that the Scriptures contain errors and misunderstandings.

In short, the views he expressed in his Sunday Telegraph column convict him of the very defects in orthodoxy for which he was justly berated by Dr Harrison.

*                                                 *

In his letter of July 2001 to Catholic World Report Dr Harrison said-- Archbishop Pell is certainly the best man available to undertake the urgent and Herculean task of leading the pallid and sickly Australian Church back toward her former strength and vigour .   One would have to doubt the accuracy of that judgement.

Michael Baker

[1]  On the psalms , 98, 9: Migne, Patrologia Latina 37, 1264

[2]  Letter to Jerome, 28, 3, 3

[3]  Which may be viewed at

[4]  Both Dr Harrison's letter and Fr Fessio's reply may be seen at

[5]  Letters and Fr Fessio's further response may be seen at