In the wake of Easter, it was “sneering secularist Tuesday” at Crikey this week. The newsletter (editor-in-chief Peter Fray) ran an article by Adelaide-based journalist Tory Shepherd titled “Saints preserve us: what Pell’s Easter homily gets wrong about the holiday”.
The reference was to Cardinal George Pell’s article “Reflection and belief in the quiet Eternal City”, published in Inquirer last Saturday. It was a considered look at the state of Christianity in general, and of life in Rome and the Vatican in particular, at that time of the year when Christians affirm their belief in the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Australia’s leading historian, Geoffrey Blainey, regards Christ (who is estimated to have lived from about 4BC to about AD30) and the Prophet Mohammed (circa AD570-632) as the two most influential figures in the history of the world. This judgment is made with respect to the number of followers of Christianity and Islam, respectively.
These days there are few who would deign to mock Mohammed, and rightly so. But Christ is an open target.
In her Crikey article, Shepherd referred to “a dude called Jesus”. She would never refer to Mohammed in such a way — and if she did, Fray never would have published such a put-down. These days the left sneering secularists feel free to mock Christians but not followers of other religions who believe in a specific god or a deity of some kind.
Shepherd began her article: “If bullshitting was a cardinal sin, George Pell would be in trouble.” She concluded by stating “you can’t make this shit up”. And in the middle of the rant there was a complaint about the “preponderance of bullshit” in Pell’s article.
It could be that — for someone who is a judge of the Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism — Shepherd has a surprisingly limited vocabulary when it comes to piling on abuse. But it’s most likely that her contempt for Pell prevailed over good writing in this instance. Certainly Pell is a controversial figure in Australia, having been the target of a media pile-on for two decades at least.
But he is a highly intelligent man and the first Catholic prelate, it is believed, to take a doctorate in the theology faculty at Oxford since the Protestant Reformation of five centuries ago.
As such it would be assumed that Pell knows a bit about religion, Easter and so on. But not by Shepherd, who maintains that “Easter’s origins are pagan”. Well, some of them are. But, to Christians over the centuries, Easter is about the death and resurrection of Christ. Hence the propensity of some Christians to quote from St Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians (15.14): “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.”
This is taken from the King James Version of the Bible, one of the finest examples of writing in the English language. Yet to the likes of Shepherd it’s all a bit of a joke — she refers to “the Pet Sematary-esque claims about the resurrection”. Overlooking the fact some of the greatest figures in human history believed in Christ’s resurrection. Including Francis of Assisi, William Shakespeare and Florence Nightingale.
In his article, while stating his belief in the resurrection, Pell acknowledged that “such might be mistaken claims” but added: “they are not a bloodless myth”. He understands the attraction of agnosticism but rejects those whose act of faith is to believe in atheism. Pell’s act of faith is to believe in Christianity.
It turned out that Shepherd was just as put out by Pell’s secular views as his spiritual ones. For example, she rejects Pell’s view that “the ABC is dominated by a Gramscian hegemony hostile to social conservatives, most Christians and often to Western civilisation”. But this is a valid critique of the public broadcaster, which does not have one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets.
Pell’s position is that there is more political and social diversity within government-sponsored television stations in Italy than can be found in Australia. From someone who speaks fluent Italian, this is a judgment that comes with some authority.
Shepherd also verbals Pell by suggesting that he regards Australia as “the little colony down south”, which is ignorant of Christian teaching. Pell did not refer to Australia as such. But it is true that Christianity in Australia is nowhere near as strong as in parts of Europe, part of Asia and Africa and most of the Americas.
Pell’s comments that “all of the taxi drivers in Rome have a viewpoint on religion and the Vatican” and that many Australians “haven’t much of a notion about the Christian origins of the (Easter) celebration, even of Good Friday” are based on observation and essentially true. Contemporary Australia is increasingly secular even though pockets of believers remain.
Lord Bragg of Wigton, otherwise known as Melvyn Bragg, delivered the Sydney Institute’s annual lecture in 2012. He spoke about the impact of the King James Bible. Brought up a Christian, Bragg became agnostic. But he references the King James Version to demonstrate the positive impact of Christianity on Britain and the British. A similar comment could have been made of the impact of Catholicism.
Bragg’s point was that so much of the literature, poetry, music and art that we treasure came from a time when Christianity was the predominant influence in large parts of the world. He also pointed to the role of Christians in bringing about social reform — pointing to the likes of William Wilberforce in ending slavery and Catherine Booth who drew attention to the plight of slum dwellers.
Sneering secularists such as Shepherd are entitled to their rants and Fray is entitled to publish her in Crikey. But only intellectual lightweights dismiss Christians, including Catholics like Pell, as self-flagellating fools who believe in a deceased “dude”.