If Tony Abbott becomes our next prime minister, as many predict, there is one holy man best placed to whisper into his ear: Cardinal George Pell. We reckon that’s enough to make him our most powerful religious leader.
Abbott’s friendship with Pell is no secret. The Opposition Leader and former priest-in-training has long seen Australia’s most senior Catholic as a confidant and personal confessor, as someone he can seek guidance from. Perhaps even to ask for advice during an election year.
“Cardinal Pell is one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen. I am a very imperfect Catholic,” Abbott once said during an election campaign. “Why shouldn’t I go and seek counsel?”
Why not, indeed. Pell is equally effusive of his mate, describing him in a recent profile as “a very decent and competent fellow” and the “most formidable Opposition Leader in Australian history”.
While much of Pell’s sway lies in his strong personality and the company he keeps, it doesn’t hurt that he has also become de facto leader for Australia’s 13 million Catholics. The Church itself also commands significant power: outside government, it is the nation’s largest employer and one of the biggest independent providers of health care, aged care and education.
At the top of all this is Pell: the eighth Archbishop of Sydney and, for the past decade, a Cardinal at the Vatican, making him one of the most powerful Catholics in the world. Some even rate him as an outside chance to take over when the Holy See elects its next Pope.
Closer to home, and what Pell’s influence could mean in an Abbott government is a little unclear. Abbott has so far been reluctant to play up his Catholicism in his pitch for the prime ministership, preferring to keep it the background. This seems to be the work of his advisers, who have sought to soften his reputation as the “mad monk” in a bid to not turn off voters — particularly women.
Despite this, one question remains on the lips of progressives: is Abbott faking his vow of silence, only to go back to his roots once he gets the keys to the Lodge?
Pell and Abbott share many of the same views on issues such as gay marriage and euthanasia, while also disapproving of s-x before marriage. Abortion is one area where the two differ publicly, although Abbott’s personal views are more in line with the traditional Catholic view.
ANU professor John Warhurst, an expert in politics and religion, notes Abbott’s public remarks on religion have died down since the replacement of Kevin Rudd, who was happy to be seen attending Anglican services, with Julia Gillard, an atheist.
“In Australian politics today there are no points to be gained either in so-called religious crusades or crusades against religion whatever your personal position,” Warhurst wrote recently. “It is much more strategic just to leave the issue alone. While such crusades may be well received by your own close supporters, they don’t win votes in middle Australia. They may even antagonise some mainstream voters.”
Compounding Pell’s presence in Canberra is the fact that alongside Abbott sits a significant Catholic representation in Parliament, particularly on the Coalition side. In a speech in Ireland last year, Pell said he encouraged Catholics to go into politics.
“Most join the Liberal-Nationals but we also need strong unions and an active Labor Party with good Catholics in them,” he said, adding it was also important for Catholics to “make use of the secular media” to get their message across.
But while Pell may see the media as a tool of power, it can also be used against him. In June, Four Corners uncovered a series of s-xual-abuse allegations, as well as an ensuing cover-up. Sensing an increasing scandal, the Victorian government commissioned a multi-party inquiry into how the Church deals with similar incidents. In a bid to shield Pell from the fallout, the Church issued a statement underplaying his power and claiming responsibility only so far as complaints against priests in Sydney.
“Cardinal Pell is not the head of the Church in Australia as is commonly reported in the media and elsewhere,” it wrote, claiming that referring complaints was not “passing the buck”. “There is a division of responsibility in the church somewhat like the separation of powers in a democracy or the division of responsibilities between the states and commonwealth in Australia.”
Only time will tell whether that’s enough to truly shield him from what’s to come.