Tony Abbott’s mysterious meeting with George Pell a few days ago and his backsliding on Lateline has caused a flurry of debate about politics, religion and whether the two should mix. Check out what Crikey’s subscribers were sent on the issue.

Our political editor Christian Kerr might have told ABC Victoria’s Jon Faine on Friday that it was “a storm in a chalice”, but what an extraordinary exchange between Tony Abbott and Tony Jones on Lateline on Thursday night over the relatively straightforward question of whether the Health Minister and devout Catholic had met with Archbishop Pell during the election campaign.

You can read the transcript here but it is worth running in full:

TONY JONES: Tony Abbott on another matter, have you met Archbishop Pell during the election campaign?

TONY ABBOTT: Not that I can recall.

TONY JONES: Not that you can recall, because we believe that you’ve had at least one meeting with him quite recently? You don’t recall that?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, when? Where?

TONY JONES: At the presbytery in Sydney.

TONY ABBOTT: Ah, actually now that you do mention it, I did met with Cardinal Pell. So what? Why shouldn’t I meet with Cardinal Pell?

TONY JONES: Why couldn’t you recall meeting him, I think, 10 days ago?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, whenever it was, so what? Why shouldn’t I meet Cardinal Pell. Cardinal Pell is a fine man. He made a very good statement the other day about the Labor Party’s policy, why shouldn’t I meet with him?

TONY JONES: Well, the reason we’re asking about this, obviously, because your behind-the-scenes activities in the ’98 election were quite renowned and I’m wondering is there any possibility that in your discussions with Cardinal Pell which you couldn’t recall a moment ago – in those discussions did you actually bring up the issue of private schools?

TONY ABBOTT: Nup.

TONY JONES: Not at all?

TONY ABBOTT: Nup.

TONY JONES: What issues were discussed?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, Tony, I may well have been going to confession to Cardinal Pell, I may well have been seeking pastoral counselling from Cardinal Pell. What’s so sinister about that? Cardinal Pell is one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen. I am a very imperfect Catholic. Why shouldn’t I go and seek counsel? Why shouldn’t I go and trespass on the time occasionally of someone like Cardinal Pell. If you spent more time with Cardinal Pell, your life might be more interesting.

TONY JONES: I haven’t spent any time at all with Cardinal Pell as it turns out, but that’s beside the point. You’re a political operative and the question is not whether he gave you counselling but whether you gave him counselling because only a short time after your visit out came this letter signed by two Archbishops condemning Labor’s education policy?

TONY ABBOTT: So you think that I put words into the mouth not only of Cardinal Pell but of Archbishop Jensen?

TONY JONES: I’m simply asking whether that was a matter of your conversations which a moment ago you didn’t recall?

TONY ABBOTT: That’s a bizarre suggestion.

TONY JONES: Tony Abbott, we’ll have to leave it there, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

TONY ABBOTT: Thanks.

CRIKEY: Gee, the Liberals don’t need this sort of evasive stuff in the election countdown as Labor runs all those negative ads about John Howard’s buck-passing and blame-dodging. The key question remains as to whether Tony Abbott influenced George Pell to openly campaign against Labor’s education policy when the policy seemed to largely protect Catholic schools. Finally, given that George Pell also endorsed the GST in 1998, is he simply another solid Liberal supporter?

Was the Mad Monk asking Pell for a post-election job?

A Catholic mover and shaker writes:

Tony Jones may have missed the point during this interview with Tony Abbott on Lateline last night. The Howard Government’s pledge of $5 million to Western Australia’s Notre Dame University, Sydney Campus, has been lifted to $20 million and the University has been given full access to HECS. In other words, a private Catholic university, dominated by the ultra-conservative Pell, will be funded by the Liberals as if it were a public university.

If the Liberal’s lose the election, a cynic might predict Tony Abbott will resign from Parliament and become a senior academic at Notre Dame.

As a postscript – the moderate Australian Catholic University has been told, by Pell, that its rental for church land of $1, will be raised to over $1 million (or more, I don’t have the exact amount), but this new rental will be reduced if they introduce compulsory conservative Catholic religious courses.

Tony Abbott is at the eye of a major hurricane in Catholic circles, as the Catholics in Australia move towards civil war – the champions of darkness are founded and led by Pell, including the Jesuits, versus the moderate small ‘c’ Catholics.

That meeting is a demonstration of Abbott’s servitude to Pell and you can be assured Abbott is the one doing counselling, as well as being the deal maker between Pell and Howard. This is not so much about the branding of Catholicism, as Pell’s ambitions to be elected Pope.

Wife Margaret may have tried, but you can’t take the seminary out of Abbott.

Ivan Jelical on Tony Abbott’s confession

Our religious affairs correspondent, Ivan Jelical, is confused. He reports on Michelle Grattan taking confessional about Tony Abbott taking confessional:

The Mad Monk’s late-night confession will go down as one of the lines of the campaign: “Ah, actually now that you do mention it, I did meet with Cardinal Pell. So what?”

What indeed. For a start, what was Tony chatting to the Archbishop about? Maybe he was seeking advice about the 9th Commandment. You know, the one that goes: “Thou shalt not bear false witness…”

But worse than being caught out fibbing on national telly, Abbott had to cop one of Michelle Grattan’s famous late-night calls. La Grattan revealed on Radio National this morning that she’d given Abbott a buzz after Lateline to clarify the situation.

Pollies know they’re not going to get husky pillow talk from Michelle when she calls after Vespers. The Chief Cobber confided with ABC listeners that Abbott told her the meeting with Pell was about a “personal matter”.

So does Michelle consider Tony’s slip of the tongue and miraculous recovery of memory a venial or a mortal sin?

In Wednesday’s sealed section, your correspondent asked: Why has the Roman Catholic Church decided to jump into bed with their well-heeled Anglican counterparts?

That’s still in play, and growing ever more interesting, thanks to the Mad Monk’s musings.

Flogging the Mad Monk

A chaplain at a rich non-Catholic school writes:

Dear Mr Abbott

I was dismayed by your performance on Lateline last night.

Your responses to Tony Jones’ questioning about a meeting with Cardinal Pell were evasive and shifty in the extreme and quite unworthy of your profession of faith.

With suspicion of politicians running so high among my students, your performance will confirm the conviction of many of them that most politicians are not honest and transparent.

No doubt your spin doctors will be holding crisis management talks this morning to try to undo the damage you have done to your reputation. I hope that the media gives maximum coverage to your disgraceful performance which shocked me deeply as a long serving school chaplain.

I would be grateful for your personal response by letter rather than by email to this strong expression of opinion.

Yours truly

The Reverend
Senior Chaplain

Praying for Tony Jones

It seems we left out the best bit of the showdown between Tony Jones and Tony Abbott on Lateline last Thursday night.

We all saw that menacing stare from the Mad Monk when he was thanked for appearing but after the interview was over, Abbott apparently pointed at Jones in a threatening fashion, looked at the others in the room and said: “You should pray for this man”.

Meanwhile, the nation’s alternative Governor General, Lord Sedgwick of Strathmore, has his amusing view on Tony Abbott’s 7am meting with George Pell on August 31: http://mblog.com/there_aint_no_sanity_clause