George Pell: The Times are Out of Joint

21 March 2023

18.5 MINS

By George Pell.

(Editor’s note: The following is a written copy of the speech given by George Pell at the Campion College Fundraising Dinner, held in the NSW Parliament Dining Room. It is published due to its insightful commentary on the decline of Australian culture.)

The time is out of joint; o cursed spite

That ever I was born to set it right”

(Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)


I was born and then educated in the olden days of the nineteen forties – fifties when La Nina was also operating, and the Ballarat of my youth was regularly wet and cold. We had no central heating.

It was a primitive time with Bob Menzies as Prime Minister sustained by Democratic Labor Party second preferences. A government was in peril if unemployment rose beyond three percent. Some of the cognoscenti, like Patrick White and Sydney Nolan fled to London, then Dame Edna escaped from Moonee Ponds, but most Aussies enjoyed their good fortune and refused to acknowledge their lack of sophistication or feel inferior, to the dismay of their betters. I suspect this was one cause of D.H. Lawrence’s earlier exasperation with Australia.

I was educated at St Pat’s in Ballarat, run by the Christian Brothers, to whom my generation and earlier generations are eternally grateful; or should be! The brothers and the nuns worked for pocket money as no government funding was available for non-government schools. Without their sacrifices many young Catholics between 1870 and 1970 would not have received a Catholic education.

It was a primitive time. Men only married women. Husband and wife usually stayed together and during those times when marital bliss evaporated. Most did not live together before marriage and many went regularly to Church. Probably more than half of the Catholics were at Sunday Mass. During the Second World War a group called the Communists dominated many Australian unions, damaging the War effort considerably until Hitler invaded his Communist ally Russia. A group of Australian patriots, including many Catholics threw the Communist union leaders out. This was a good thing.

It was a primitive age as multiculturalism had not been invented and the Greek and Italian migrants had to assimilate. The “wogs” and “wops” were expected to know their place, but even in primitive times there were turn-ups, the unexpected. The most powerful group of Catholic activists was led by a Melbourne man, an Italian Australian and almost all his foot soldiers were Irish Australians. It worked well, although one or two conceded in a whisper that a name like “Santamaria” was not ideal in every circumstance.

St Pats was not an academic school as few of the brothers, our only teachers, had university degrees. Our school was renowned for producing Aussie Rules footballers and priests, over 300 in fact since 1893, more than any other Australian school. When I was welcomed back as a new bishop in 1987, the headmaster explained to the boys in the cathedral that the college was renowned for producing two Brownlow Medal winners (the best and fairest player in the Victoria Football League) and two bishops. The achievements were mentioned in that order.

It was a primitive age. I, and a large cohort of my class (we had ninety boys under one teacher in year seven) studied Latin and French each year from year seven and we had external written government exams for years ten to twelve. The results of such examinations were, of course, irrefutable evidence of achievement for those in less reputable high schools and Catholic schools.

We also studied a play of Shakespeare each year from year nine, starting with Julius Caesar, wrestling with the antique language, probably not understanding too much of the drama and variety of human experience presented to us, but being regularly exposed to the greatest writing in our language. My cohort also studied Chaucer and Milton, Browning and the Romantic poets, Emily Bronte, Hemingway etc.

It was a primitive age. We had no television until 1956, the year of the Melbourne Olympics; there were no drugs available to students in Ballarat, but plenty of alcohol, no internet pornography, although Man magazine could be purchased from below the counter, no mobile phones, no computers, no internet.

The Second Vatican Council had not taken place. The Irish born Dr Daniel Mannix, a great tribal leader was still Archbishop of Melbourne, before dying, at the age of ninety-nine in 1963. He provided reassurance to his followers whom he encouraged into the middle class, a probably unmatched example of social mobility, and he did not disturb the Protestant majority as much in his later years as he did e.g. in the great First World War debates on conscription. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life were plentiful (there were approximately 200 seminarians for the diocesan priesthood of Victoria and Tasmania when I entered Corpus Christi seminary in 1960), while the Catholic community was clear headed, confident and narrow minded. Protestant churchgoing rates were not as high as ours (we took consolation in this), but the Protestant schools (known as Public Schools) were still imparting a Christian moral framework to their students for public life and indeed family life. It was the invention of the contraceptive pill and the consequent sexual revolution of the 1960’s spread by e.g. the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, which upended this.

As a grumpy old male, entering into his ninth decade of life, and emerging from the ancient provincial setting I have described, some would claim that it is not surprising that I would echo the words of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, that “the time is out of joint”.

At this stage, to bolster my disreputable credentials and explain the disadvantages of my early environment, I cannot refrain from pointing out that Kentucky Fried Chicken opened their first Australian outlet in Ballarat in the 1970s, I think, working from the premise that if they could be successful in Ballarat, the most conservative city in Australia in their estimate, they could sell their chickens anywhere in the nation.

Are my origins, in the ancient provincial mists, sufficient to explain away my suspicion, with Hamlet, that “something is rotten in the state”? Am I blinded by sentimental nostalgia for a simpler, vanished past? After all, I was born during the Second World War and now we have no World War, only the naked Russian aggression in distant Ukraine and clumsy, but disturbing Chinese belligerence as it attempts to re-establish the Middle Kingdom as the world’s number one power. A possible Chinese naval base in the Solomon Islands is still some distance away.

I don’t think Australian life is rotten at the core, but times are changing, and not always for the better. The inevitable Royal Commission of the future into Victoria could find a situation parallel to that of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland in the 1970’s-80’s, and too many Australians were content with the overreaction of bossy nanny states during the COVID crisis, when the churches were closed before the casino (at least in Victoria). Many in the Catholic leadership were too docile.

But hundreds of thousands of immigrants want to come to Australia each year (there are not too many clamouring to migrate into China). Before COVID Australia had four of the world’s top ten liveable cities and returning from Rome and travelling around Sydney’s suburbs I marvel at the prosperity, the fine homes, continuing mile after mile. In the Heritage Foundation’s 2020 Index of Economic Freedom Australia was ranked as the first country (c.f. David Kemp – Liberty in the Land of Dreams, 2022, pp. 16–17). Campion has been born and the two Catholic universities provide something of a bulwark against the worst.

But the times are changing and many are uneasy, especially the social conservatives, regularly assailed by the woke activists even in sport (as we saw in the controversy over Folau and in the bravery of the Manly Seven). Some leaders in big business have buckled or enthusiastically embraced anti-Christian measures. Corrs the lawyers, recently dumped the Melbourne Archdiocese as a client, without consultation and after being retained for more than sixty years. It was under a Federal Liberal government that official forms replaced the term “mother” and “father” with “birth persons”. I had spoken with a succession of the Labor leaders about the importance of maintaining a situation where pro-life and pro-family candidates could still be endorsed (unlike the Democrats in the U.S.A.), but I have been surprised by the exuberance of so many woke activists in the Coalition parties. I did not anticipate such a rapid collapse. The presence of Dutton and Taylor offers hope, unless they are heavily outnumbered, but I am tempted to claim that the only conservative blow stuck by the last Federal government was to reduce substantially the numbers of students doing poisonous arts courses, although they did protect the maths curriculum against the woke nonsense.

The Catholic vote is fractured, but a good number could be mustered to defend Catholic schools. However the significant grouping for the future is the gospel Christians in all the Christian churches, especially the Catholics. Many, but not all of these are migrants and there are significant groupings in some places e.g. Western Sydney.

In my youth I remember Archbishop Mannix explaining that in democracies, unlike the autocracies of the past, Christians can defend themselves through their votes. Our opponents are hoping that Catholics will keep silent in the public square after the shame of paedophilia. Such a Christian silence on the moral issues of the day would be a serious dereliction of duty, following one massive failure with another, an abuse of the abuse. However it is not sufficient to speak, as people need to listen and I suppose the anti-Christian forces on both sides of politics will only be tamed when they are shown Christians have votes, which they will sometimes use.

Population has drained from the countryside, union membership has fallen and parliaments are dominated by a tertiary educated meritocracy, increasingly secular where the two major parties do not differ too much, at least on non-economic measures. This is the context for the taming of the social conservatives, exemplified in the NSW parliament, where the main parties are led by two good men, believing, practising Catholics and produced the most draconian euthanasia legislation in Australia.

Despite all this, I am not an ecclesiastical Tim Flannery predicting religious collapse, complete disaster in the next decade or so.

Nor do I think much of Flannery’s insights into climate. This bizarre conviction that we can change the earth’s climate patterns is one piece of evidence that the times are out of joint. It is a billion dollar, perhaps one trillion dollar juggernaut, probably heading in the wrong direction.

Tim seems to have been a bit down in 2004. Australia was for him particularly vulnerable. “We are going to experience conditions not seen for 40 million years” (Ian Plimer, Green Murder (2021), p. 190) and he also thought “there is a fair chance Perth will be the 21st century’s first ghost metropolis” (Plimer, ibid, p. 189).

In 2006 the threat of rising sea levels joined the dangers of drought. In an article entitled “Climate’s Last Chance”, he exhorted us to “picture an eight story building by the beach, then imagine waves lapping its roof” (Plimer, ibid, p. 191).

2007 was a mixed year because while he felt Australia was in a “one-in-1,000 year drought” and that Brisbane and Adelaide could run out of water by year’s end (Plimer, ibid, p. 192), he was optimistic about the embedded energy in South Australia’s hot rocks. The Rudd Labor government invested $90 million of taxpayers’ money in this Cooper Basin geothermal project. Surprise, surprise, the project failed, was abandoned; and money was lost; a smaller sum however than the Vatican lost on the Sloane Avenue, London purchase (that was 150 million euros).

Something is not right, is off key, when a man with Flannery’s views can be published and published regularly in reputable journals. We joined Alice in Wonderland when Tim was declared Australian of the Year in 2007.

In the post-Christian vacuum which is developing the esteem for freedom, the lynch pin of the Liberalism project, from which society and the Church have received substantial benefits, is also under sustained assault. The renamed climate change movement against carbon dioxide (which not only enhances the growth of vegetation, but is essential for it), has many of the characteristics of a low level, not too demanding, pseudo-religion. When religious belief is lost or deconstructed the survivors like to embrace some grand narrative and seem to need something to fear. Almost unconsciously they seek to appease the higher powers (of nature in this case) with the sacrificial offering of fossil fuels, of coal and oil.

Unfortunately for them most modern economics will continue to need coal and oil. Democratic majorities in Australia and throughout the First World will not consent to regular electrical blackouts, power failures at the height of summer or winter. And of course our foes and allies in the Third World need coal and oil for their industrial and modernising programmes, just as we did in the past and continue to do so. They are sensible and clear headed on this point and would be bemused by Western virtue signalling. In 2021 1893 new coal fired power stations were being constructed around the world, 446 in India, 1,171 in China, and none in virtuous Australia which also abstains from developing nuclear power stations (Plimer, ibid, p. 46). Australia has resources of coal and uranium, apparently sufficient for thousands of years, and I am sure these will be developed and exploited to the benefit of our descendants for many generations when our aberrant enthusiasms have lapsed.

There is no one obligatory Catholic position on climate change, because we are a religion, teaching faith and morals, and do not impose any scientific straitjacket. Every person has a right to be foolish, if he thinks it wise (this is also true of myself). The climate challenge is not one of my major concerns, although I enjoy introducing a few facts into the hysteria, e.g. no computer programme has accurately predicted future weather patterns; and some historical facts about the warming periods around the time of Christ’s birth and the Medieval warming from 900 – 1300 when Australia suffered from some terrible droughts. The worst lasted for 39 years between A.D. 1174 – 1212 and a later mega drought lasted for 23 years between 1500 – 1522 (Plimer, ibid, pp. 286–88).

My major concerns are elsewhere; with the Catholic Church and the rise of a belligerent China.

The 2021 census in Australia showed a spectacular rise in the number of those who declared that they subscribe to no religion, now numbering 38.9 per cent; an equally spectacular drop in the numbers of the Uniting and Anglican churches, with losses of 22 per cent and 20 per cent respectively and the substantial, unprecedent decline by 4 per cent of Catholic Church membership in five years. All this slippage followed significant Christian losses in the previous five years.

A point to be pondered is that the Catholic decline was so much lower than the Protestant percentages, although Catholics bore the brunt of the hostility from the media and the activities of the Royal Commission on institutional paedophilia.

All of those who love Christ and the Church are dismayed by these losses, but differ, sometimes acrimoniously, on how they should be addressed. We have a clear division between those who believe that we are the servants and defenders of the Apostolic Tradition, with no power to change substantially the doctrines that come to us from Christ and the apostles through Scripture and the Catholic magisterium. Opposed to them is an older cohort, generally a little bit younger than myself, who give the last word to modernity, who believe we are masters of the Apostolic Tradition and can amend it e.g. to bless homosexual unions and to create women priests. Some also reject the basic Christian teachings on sexuality.

The recent Plenary Council has come and gone and was largely irrelevant to the preaching of the gospel and the threat of decline, being more concerned with the redistribution of power.

Australia’s finest theologian, a woman who happens to be orthodox (a positon now regarded as conservative) was not invited to be a delegate. The nation’s leading Catholic academic and an outstanding public intellectual (he was Vice Chancellor at ACU) was barred from writing any council documents. There were no young priests, who are in fact one of the hopes for the future with their zeal, their theological discrimination and intellectual firepower and of course few Latin Church ethnic parishioners.

Council members requested that the priesthood, family and education be discussed; to no avail and naturally there wasn’t a squeak on the approaching threats to religious freedoms in our schools, hospitals and retirement homes. A goodly percentage of the Council’s pacemakers, (fixers?) were self-absorbed, not interested in missionary expansion, isolated from the real world, from the clash between good and evil, faith and darkness. One can see how the Church disintegrated in Belgium, Holland and Quebec. Jesus got a few mentions, more than Jesus Christ, and faith was hardly mentioned at all, much less evangelisation or the unborn.

The Council seemed unaware of the causes for the revolution in manners and morals which has also built up in Australia, exemplified in the brutal incivility and power plays of the social media, and the spread of pornography into every section of society, male and female. The tribal power politics of the advancing “Cancel Culture” is threatening to overthrow the foundations of liberalism, which has allowed the Churches to survive in Australia even as the Judaeo-Christian legal foundations on life, marriage, family and sexuality were undermined.

In the new politics of gender and race, white males and especially old white males, represent the worst of the past, of the detested racism, colonialism, sexism and patriarchy, etc. To quote The Australian’s Paul Kelly (whom I have found regularly helpful in trying to understand what is happening in our wider society because of the decline in Christianity), these forces are bitterly opposed not just to Christian civilization, but to the foundations of our traditional Western consensus “that all people, regardless of race, religion, sex or gender are equal before the law and share a common dignity”. (Paul Kelly, Contemporary Liberalism: The Source of the Crisis, Conversazione, 16/3/22)

The issues in dispute could scarcely be more basic. Reason, freedom, truth, risk banishment, while notions of Divine Law, immutable natural law have a quaint antiquated ring about them, and are seen as expressions of a failed mythology.

Some writers e.g. Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (March 2015), recognise liberalism’s debts to Christianity. Most do not. My suspicion is that the links are even more profound and any Western society which is based on the premise of equality before the law for all people and ascribes a common dignity to each and every person, citizen or foreigner, productive or dependent, young and healthy or old and dependent – such a society can only continue when sustained by Christian ideals of universal love, often expressed as human rights, derived from a Creator God. One does not need to be a Christian for this as a post-Christian instinct or sympathy can suffice, but this too is declining, savagely dismissed in our universities. The brutal forces driving evolution, the law of the jungle, the economic and intellectual inequalities among humans, the differences between the strong and the weak, the sick and the healthy, all fly in the face of any claims of universal human dignity. Already a significant section explicitly endorses tribalism, revenge, raw power and domination rather than any movement to consensus. In a hostile post-Christian Australia sustaining the liberalism ideal might be as difficult as planting democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I do not believe that the battle is over, that the field has been lost. Recently a senior public figure told me that the only option now for Christians in Australia is to head for the catacombs and that the rot could only be stopped by a few martyrdoms. I hope and believe that this is a misreading of the situation, excessively pessimistic. But the situation is on the turn and mighty tides are running against many, but not all Christian teachings. Most Australians still believe “everyone has a right to a fair go”. Just as certainly if the situation is not to worsen, not only Christians, but all those who value our Western way of life need to “have a go”, which is the second bedrock of the Australian consensus, the common sense of our ancestors which gave us our decency and prosperity.

Before I begin to commend what Campion is doing and try to relate it to the societal changes I am describing, we must turn our attention briefly to a recently perceived danger, a game changer in every respect: the belligerence and hostility towards Australia of China on the rise, rich and powerful.

War is a real possibility in the next decade, more probably over Taiwan, but not necessarily. Jim Molan’s recent book, Danger on our Doorstep (2022, Harper Collins), even when taken with a stiff pinch of salt, warns against a second Pearl Harbour and provides little comfort. I strongly recommend you read it.

One of the few vitally important tasks of the Albanese government is to increase our capacity to defend ourselves, inflict damage on any aggressor in the short term, and for the next twenty or forty years.

We hope and work for peace, but if the worst was to happen, or even big trouble occurred, largely fought out to the North, present high levels of rhetoric would then be of absolutely no use. Deeds are needed, not words.

China regards us as a weak link in the American alliance, because of our trade dependency with them and because of our military weakness. A power vacuum and an unprotected and frivolous society are temptations for dictators especially if they are wanting to distract their citizens from local problems such as poverty and inequality, oppression and discontent, 35 or 40 million surplus males and the prospect of over 200 million fewer people in the workforce in 2050.

China will refocus the Australian national conversation, however the situation develops, and I am not just talking about increased taxes for defence spending or the introduction of national service. Australia might be forced to decide whether we love our nation sufficiently to be prepared to defend it; whether we believe in freedom and democracy enough to resist a powerful dictator. Almost inevitably Australia will be forced to draw on the strengths of her Western civilisation in the centuries of dialogue or struggle, which will accompany the rebirth of the Middle Kingdom, a once mighty civilization, as old as Greece and older than the Roman Empire; but very different from our way of life, and presently very oppressive towards her citizens.

Another significant factor is that Christianity, mainly Protestantism, is spreading in China as it spread in the hostile pagan Roman Empire. Already China probably has 60-90 million Christians and is one of the largest Christian countries in the world.

It is a reasonable proposition that the Australians of the future, on at least some occasions, will have more to interest in them than the “State of Origin” matches and the Melbourne Cup. But in any event, Australia will need clear headed, capable patriots.

Where and How does Campion Fit?

Campion College is a very small community of students and teachers, and in some senses needs to be small to enhance the question and answer, objection and response, the dialogue, which is at the heart of all genuine tertiary education, especially in the humanities.

Campion is not practical, as its main B.A. course does not provide any specific professional preparation or qualification.

Campion College is not contemporary, as it is ahead of its time, although it is a bright example of political incorrectness. It is dedicated to the study of Western Civilization, that magnificent flowering from the fusion of the ancient traditions of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome which produced Constantinian Christendom that lasted until the Reformation, the Reformation itself, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. New nations were set up by the Europeans; the Spaniards and Portuguese and then the French and English, in America, Australia and New Zealand, and colonial rule was established in Africa and parts of Asia. This came at a price, sometimes at huge moral cost. But there were also gains in education, health, law, transport, the spread of democracy, to balance out the dark side of the French Revolution, Nazism and Communism and Colonialism. The century of humiliation suffered by the Chinese is deeply felt there and fuels their assertiveness, but Hong Kong until its recent takeover, with Singapore are remarkable human achievements.

Campion studies history through Christian spectacles, evaluating the right and wrong, the good and evil, rejects any notion of a whitewash and works to diminish prejudice. But it inculcates a love and pride in our tradition, just as we love our families while recognising their failures.

Their liberal arts programme aims to impart to the students “an integrated understanding of the events, ideas, movements, personalities and works which have shaped the development of Western Culture, in the four key disciplines of history, literature, philosophy and theology. Optional units are also offered in science, mathematics, Latin and Ancient Greek.”

In other words, students are introduced to the wisdom of the ages through our tradition, the Western tradition. They learn of the central virtues, about faith and reason, about the search for meaning. They learn to analyse and synthesize , to say what they mean and mean what they say, to write and think logically and clearly and to have practical wisdom, something worthwhile to say on the basic human issues beyond whatever profession they might choose to follow.

This is an ideal personal base for any professional career and for that unmentionable role, which is vital to society, of wife and mother, the nurturing of children. It can even help the despised male of our species to be good fathers – and husbands.

Because this education is good for individuals, it follows that it is good for society. Much of what Campion College now strives to do was done 100 or even 50 years ago for the elite and the battlers by family, school, church, university and even much of the media. No longer.

One can describe what society needs in a variety of ways e.g. tradition, ritual and cult; confident, modest people; not fearful and therefore not tempted to authoritarianism. One could say that society needs religious faith, a respect for order and hierarchy, patriotism, an awareness of original sin, the flaw which runs through every human heart and community, and an equal awareness that the human capacity for improvement is limited; progress is difficult, because success is not guaranteed by good intentions.

Every society to avoid going backwards needs social conservatives from across the spectrum to transmit to the young what is worthwhile from the past. Our society is already suffering from a slowly spreading domestic chaos, damaged families, fragile children, alcohol, drugs, porn. Children need adults who will bring stability, set down boundaries so that love and respect can flourish and where the concepts of duty, honour and compassion are exemplified.

Youngsters need to be shown that there are moral truths, of right and wrong, which we do not invent, just as there are truths of maths, physics, ecology and public health. Society needs to understand that behind evolution is the Creator God, who is not only rational, stupendously intelligent, but good, kind and interested in us. Our society needs to remember that we believe in free speech, because we believe in truth; that things can be known as they are, however imperfectly. If there is no truth, there is no endpoint in debate or discussion. The more powerful tribe simply decides and imposes its solution by force. The knowledge of God’s final judgement, that each person will be obliged to answer for his life’s work, that there is a heaven and hell – all this knowledge is stabilizing for society and it is a consolation to the victims of history to know that the scales of justice will balance out in eternity.

Campion College is not alone in this struggle, which is carried forward by many agents, millions even in Australia; most of them working quietly, unseen. The Ramsay Institute’s contribution is especially valuable and all the forces of righteousness should strive to co-operate, whatever the problems in the past.

The culture Wars continue, and while our losses are considerable, the field has not been lost. The many victims of the chaos will be increasingly open to our message and appreciative of your help. Campion has joined the fray and is contributing steadily. It is a pearl in the desert. I congratulate the College’s founders, for their vision and perseverance as I commend the work of Dr Paul Morrissey and his staff and students. They all deserve our support and I am sure that you, the Campion family, will continue to provide it.


Originally published in Quadrant Magazine. Article permission thanks to Campion College. Photo by Quadrant Magazine.

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  1. Jim Twelves 21 March 2023 at 8:40 am - Reply

    Thank you, a brilliant essay on the state of the nation.

  2. Kaylene Emery 21 March 2023 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    A second thank you.
    I often have cause to think of George Pell and I am grateful that before, he left for home God was able to demonstrate to to me and for me, that Cardinal Pell was indeed a mighty man of God.

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