Church leaders have rarely become national public figures, let alone objects of political contention, in Australia. Since Federation, the number who could be so described can be counted on fewer than the fingers of one hand. There is Ernest Burgmann, the Anglican prelate who earned the sobriquet ‘the red bishop’ for his espousal of left-wing causes during the Depression. Much better known is Daniel Mannix, the long-serving Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, whose interventions in controversies ranging from conscription campaigns during World War I to Cold War agitation over communist influence in the Labor movement implicated him in two of the ALP’s great splits. And now there is George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, a cardinal and a man who is capable, as Mannix was, of arousing both hero worship and intense fear and loathing.
Pell, who is conspicuous for his adherence to an intransigently traditionalist form of Catholicism, is as divisive a figure among Catholics as he is in the wider community. Not the least merit of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell is that it acknowledges this. Marr grasps the significance of matters that commonly escape the attention of secular journalists who write about Pell. He notes, for example, that the cardinal’s brother bishops have consistently refused to elect him as president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, a forum for interdiocesan cooperation that is the nearest thing the church in this country has to a central authority.