"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, May 08, 2006

Cardinal Pell and the outrageously obvious

Last week, George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, gave a speech about the challenge of Islam to the Legatus Summit in Naples, Florida. (Legatus is a Catholic association of legal and business professionals loyal to the Vatican, but its website (www.legatus.org) is down as I write this. Maybe it's getting too many hits right now.) Having read the speech in its entirety, I can say that I find it characteristic of its giver: well-informed, balanced, clear-headed, uncompromising in principle without playing to the gallery of an admittedly sympathetic audience. It says nothing that many scholars, such as Bernard Lewis, haven't said before; and it says it in more measured tones than many which one finds online. That is why I was shocked at first when outraged critics depicted Pell, in so many words, as a bloody-minded ignoramus. Thus impugned is one who is not only a top prelate of the Catholic Church but also earned his PhD in history at Oxford. To me, all he seemed to be saying was the obvious.

On second thought, I am not shocked. Consider how, a few months ago, a group of prog-Catholic Australian intellectuals appealed to the Vatican against Pell, arguing that his long-developed criticisms of their stance on the role of personal conscience in moral decision-making actually violate the teaching of the Church on the subject. Pell snorted that the appeal was "a bit of a hoot." I studied the matter myself and posted my conclusions at Pontifications. Pell was right and I defended him. But the present flap about his remarks on Islam reinforces my impression that he's got a habit of being so right as to strike some very raw nerves.

Pell urges all literate Westerners, especially Catholics, to read the Koran and as much of the commentary on it as they can. I agree and even did so in college, when I took a semester's course on "Islamic Religion" from a man who, as a Jesuit scholastic, had taught me history in high school. By the time I re-encountered him at Columbia, he had left the Church and converted to Islam. As the son of Lebanese-Catholic parents, he was fully trilingual in English, French, and Arabic. So I can hardly be accused of having learned nothing about Islam or having learned it from an uninformed or unsympathetic source. Yet I can find nothing in Pell's talk smacking of ignorance or prejudice. It's not prejudice: it's postjudice. There is no other form of legitimate judgment.

If you read it, you'll find much food for thought in Pell's speech even before you finish it. But I urge you to finish it and keep thinking, as he has done so deeply.
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