George Pell Vatican church
Cardinal George Pell

Well, there was never any likelihood that the conviction of (still) Cardinal George Pell wouldn’t be a major moment in the culture wars. Even so, it’s a helluva thing to watch the right commentariat throw itself into the defence of Pell with utter abandon. The full court press by Bolt, Henderson, Akerman, Devine et al has marked them off pretty decisively from the parliamentary wing of the right (with the rule-proving exception of Craig Kelly), who were quick to ring-fence Pell from what remains of their politics.

John Howard may be bitterly regretting his decision to do so now. Tony Abbott’s — no letter, can’t recall being asked for one, but gives Pell a farewell call — is pure Abbott.

Perhaps the right commentariat decided they had little choice but to go down swinging with Pell. This is not a priest after all, nor even a bishop, who can be ditched for the greater good of the church. This is the one-time No. 3 man in the Vatican, and the personification of a certain idea of Catholic virtue in Australia: conservative, no-nonsense, disdainful of public emotionality, etc. To try and excise him from the right’s political project — which depends on the idea that virtuous politics is somehow bound up with traditional institutions and values — would be political open-heart surgery on yourself. But to defend him is taking the right commentariat to a position very distant from much of their audience.

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The lesser part of this is the blatant contradiction between supporting the rule of law — when black people and refugees are on the sharp end of it — and the sudden announcement that justice should be based on an “I reckon” sort of thing. This is reaching towards a populism that the conservative respect for institutions is supposed to restrain. Suddenly, the right have become interested in all the mediaeval hangovers of the justice system, from the harshness of remand conditions, to the lack of proper medical care for prisoners, to the basic inhumanity of the modern penitentiary regime, and solitary lockdown for 23 hours a day.

But the more momentous division opening up for them is between the populist notion of monster criminals that they have been spruiking for the past decade. That’s stock in trade for tabloid media of course: make people feel scared and alone, and then sell them back something that gives them a sense of protection and connection, a fire-breathing newspaper. Paedophiles, in our era, have become the essence of that evil, judged worse in the public emotional register than murderers. To construct paedophiles thus, the law and order crowd have taken on many of the arguments of the left about the centrality of sexual being to a fulfilled life. The paedo thus becomes a figure who plunges people into hell, an object not merely of torment, but of disgust.

To defend Pell and counter this, the right commentariat are attempting to marshal the core right-cultural idea: that a virtuous and devout man would never do these things, not least after a service, and that not he, but his accusers, are disgusting to suggest he would.

This is a frankly desperate ploy, and they must know this. It might have worked 50, 40, even 30 years ago, but not now. Though explicit Freudian reasoning is almost extinct as a public discourse, its general frame of mind has become universal. Someone committing the ultimate profanity of child sexual assault at the heart of the sacred? That’s not an impossibility, it’s a Law and Order:SVU episode. The more the right insist on this account, the more they diverge from a section of their base. A centre-right section they could once have commanded went long ago.

Supporting a convicted paedophile will further alienate a section of their core, who were attracted to their message precisely by the notion that society was threatened by people such as predatory paedophiles. It’s a one-way trip to even greater irrelevance, for the commentariat right.* Yet if they didn’t do it, they might fall apart completely. Conservative Catholicism has become the glue holding the Australian intellectual right together, the only account of the world with enough metaphysical oomph to stand against secularism (while also supporting free-market capitalism).

Nothing indicates this contradictory position better than Paul Kelly’s agonised piece in last weekend’s Oz, which couldn’t bring itself to run with the “I reckon” crowd, but couldn’t abandon Pell either. This is where the commentariat right is at today: caught between the minority reactionary tradition they summoned up, and mainstream centre-right political parties trying to hold onto seats becoming more progressive with every passing year. Should Pell’s appeal fail, they will lose their tiny collective mind entirely.

*predictably, both Bolt and Henderson have tried to enrol me on the side of those “doubting” the verdict. I did nothing of the sort; I simply asserted that a court verdict doesn’t establish the unquestioned truth of any event. But it’s inevitable that any position of complexity will be enrolled in the culture war without end.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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