Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery caused an uproar in 1948 and the cancellation of many subscriptions to The New Yorker. Readers were puzzled and appalled by a work of fiction that depicted ordinary people in a sleepy midwest town as a mob that would ritually stone an innocent girl to death. Of the 300 letters written to Jackson about her short story, only 13 were kind, and those were chiefly from friends.
What most stands out in this tale of man’s inhumanity to man is the sheer randomness of the violence. In the story, the girl protests her death, not because of the process by which she was chosen, but simply with a special plea that they should have singled out somebody else.
The horror this story produces, similar to the dread such works as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road evokes, is that the protagonists are ordinary people. The evil inherent in human lives appears to be just under the surface, waiting to bubble up.
Watching the testimony of Cardinal George Pell before the Royal Commission via videolink from Rome, one is struck by the fact that just about any bishop from the 1970s could have been called upon to give similar evidence. It seems that the lot has fallen on him, almost at random. His inability to recall distant events and historic inaction in the face of rumours could be said of very many people from the previous generation.
Perhaps what we are witnessing in Tim Minchin’s song and the social media conflagration is a sort of re-enactment of a rather brutal ancient rite through which a scapegoat is loaded with the nations’ sins and sacrificed to restore peace in the community. Does the idea that “the Sixties” and sheer administrative malfeasance are to blame do nothing to slake our thirst? We want to see blood and are peeved when our true motives are revealed to us.
Of course, that is not at all how the survivors see it. Andrew Collins has told the press that the survivors’ trip to Rome is not motivated by seeing Cardinal Pell per se, as it is their hope to see a change in the Church’s culture and for His Eminence to spearhead that change. Other survivors have said much the same: that they want true humility from the Church and to hear how the problems are going to be fixed.
The answers we all seek have little to do with the personal merits or flaws of individual bishops. I have met the cardinal many times and have always found him to be deeply human. He is a generous man who cares about people and visits the sick. His stiffness on television and frank replies shape a public persona that does not match the reality. When he tries to be conciliatory and recognise his own failure to press action, he is wrongly perceived as callous. I have been a first hand witness to the pastoral care exercised by George Pell when he has sacrificed important time to come to the aid of a family in distress.
Then there is the added difficulty that, despite pastoral dealings with “tax collectors and sinners”, good priests can be childishly naïve in not putting two and two together about another person.
The Royal Commission, however, is about “institutional responses” and the cardinal is being held up as a living symbol of the mind of the Church. Fundamentally, is this the mind of a pastor or of a professional? What many are listening for in these testimonies by Church elders is the extent the flock has been let down by management advice that was not filtered through the lens of Catholic theology and Gospel values: protection of the brand, not listening to the weak – the sorry list goes on.
It came as a surprise to me, then, when Commissioner Peter McClellan recommended to Cardinal Pell that the Church respond to its management failures by becoming even more corporate rather than more true to its foundational charism. McClellan’s justification for doing so was glib – that such a model is better suited to Australia in 2016. Loyal Catholics are incredibly supportive of the Royal Commission’s work to get to the truth of what has happened. The findings of the commission will play a vital role in restoring confidence in the Catholic Church in Australia. But ecclesiological integrity and intelligibility are vitally important for the Church’s many university-educated believers. That, too, is the reality of Australia in 2016.
Now, although the cardinal is being quizzed on what he did or did not know in Ballarat, I do think it would be most fitting if there was an opportunity to present before the Royal Commission a renewed commitment to openness and inclusion at the heart of the Church’s decision making: a “democratisation of power” as called for by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’. Without conceding to Congregationalism, one way to do this is to pledge a review of the Pontifical Secret and open up Church officials’ decision- making to wider public scrutiny.
The nature of the Church’s woes are, I think, laid out in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Like Jackson, Arendt also made waves with her reporting in The New Yorker as she described, not monsters, but officials who saw themselves as cogs in a machine that wrought untold evil. The hypertrophy of instrumentalist reasoning had checked their ability to reflect and act ethically. When the bureaucratic mindset is coupled with secrecy, with an inability to be held accountable and questioned, the results can be catastrophic.
That is how Pell has described the situation with Ridsdale’s criminal mishandling by Mulkearns: a catastrophe for victims and a catastrophe for the Church, with untold suffering visited on children that could have otherwise been avoided. If there had been a culture of greater openness, that suffering would have been avoided.
The interests of officials working in a Chancery, even if it be the Holy See in Rome, should not be equated with “the salvation of souls which must always be the supreme law in the Church” (Canon 1752). Canon Law is meant to be a mirror of justice, but where asymmetric information rules there is too great an opportunity for mischief and cover up. In clergy sexual abuse cases, the call for permanent silence only compounds the hurt. Systemic and structural impediments to the trust that communication calls for are clericalist barriers to an ecclesiology of communio. As Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the US Bishops Conference, puts it:
“The Church is a communion, not a political democracy; therefore openness and accountability are even more important in the Church than they are in a democracy.”
Many large organisations call for confidentiality in their internal workings. The Catholic Church is no exception. In recognition of the balance called for between an individual’s right to privacy and a disclosure for the common good, there are both times for silence as well times for speaking out (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
Church officials are often dealing with matters of conscience and juridical decisions that draw forth information from what Catholics term the “internal forum” – the individual’s relation to God. Indeed, Canon Law demands that officials keep in confidence the sensitive details they are privy to with regard to marriage cases or the collegial input of advisers to a superior. It is right and just that such information be protected.
There is a fundamental problem, however, when a culture of secrecy starts to take hold and certain issues are deemed so politically charged and spiritually sensitive that whistle-blowing is prohibited. Nothing damages the Catholic Church’s ability to proclaim the Gospel like the abuse of secrecy and “its cousins” – which Russell Shaw lists as “lying, stonewalling, happy talk” and “failure to consult”.
Although Cardinal Sean O’Malley has stated that bishops have an ethical obligation to report errant clergy to the police, the mixed signals given by other officials make it clear that the mindset of non-disclosure prevails. When senior Curial officials speak explicitly about how sensitive matters should be resolved, priests and diocesan officials take note and behave accordingly. Rome sets the pace.
That is why the presence of the survivors and Cardinal Pell’s testimony in the eternal city are of providential importance. The hearings in Rome are bound to raise interest in the Vatican. Let us hope it also awakens a renewed commitment that St Peter’s should welcome all comers with its open colonnades rather than shut the world out with impregnable walls.
Fr Richard Umbers is a member of the Sydney Archbishop’s Council of Priests and Chaplain to Warrane College at the University of NSW. This article was first published by ABC Religion and Ethics.