In the last few days we've been treated to an extraordinary display of an ancient and very specific skill. There's a specific word for it, and that's casuistry. Casuistry is a form of bloody-minded reasoning and hair-splitting argument that dates back to ancient Sumeria, at least three centuries before the Code of Hammurabi, usually considered the world's first set of workable laws.
It reached the peak of its 'modern' form in the period 1550 - 1650 with the Jesuits, the Catholic organisation that used case based reasoning and a certain moral flexibility to argue any case, black or white, in support of the Catholic Church's position outside the laws of civil society. It was a triumph of rhetoric over truth, of skilful argument in a given situation over the broader truths the Church and churchmen were meant to express and embody.
The primary purpose of casuistry is to appear to answer specific questions honestly while using terms which prevent any moral responsibility, or personal immoral act from ever coming to rest in the hands of the priest under questioning. The key to this is simple. Keep all answers related to the specifics, while making it almost impossible for those specific answers to be connected to any moral compass, or higher values that should guide a 'righteous' man.
It allows a specific group of men, Catholic priests, to engage in situational ethics, a form of moral slipperiness that their supposed Christian morality should consider repugnant. While clinging to the social respectability of 'holy' men, men of righteousness and faith, these priests use rhetorical and linguistic devices to avoid being pinned down by anyone with lesser skill. That this is hypocrisy, dishonest and self-serving hypocrisy, is never firmly established at the time and place of the contest. And while priests will use canon law, the Church's private code of laws, to hide behind, they claim the props of civil law, ie: the presumption of innocence and the demand of those opposing to prove beyond doubt their charges, to place their opponents (who are 'enemies' of the Church) at a disadvantage.
Those who have followed this blog over time will know I've written about Pell's skill, hypocrisy, slipperiness and situational morality with some asperity before now. Frankly, I loathe the man. But you have to give the devil his due. As a casuist he is probably this country's finest. And the counsel questioning him today was, frankly, lousy at picking apart his obfuscations, claims of injured innocence, and personal presumption of purity of intent. She was outclassed. So much so that a woman in the public gallery was heard to say, with a tone of both grudging respect and disgust,
"He'll do well in Rome."
At one point the Cardinal said that while he was 'guided by compassion it had to be tempered with justice'. The counsel questioning him was clearly knocked off her stride by this astounding claim, and sadly, never really regained it. Pell was calling on these two sacred principles as the pillars of his actions, his decision to fight in court the case for compensation of Mr Ellis, the victim of abuse, while feeling a brand of compassion for him that involved no effort or action on Pell's behalf. None whatsoever.
Had the QC been a little quicker on her feet she might have questioned Pell's decision to accompany self-confessed paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale to court to give him moral support when receiving his first sentence. An act of compassion (for a man so notorious he has his own WIkipedia page) tempered with a bizarre notion of justice indeed, when Pell was simultaneously doing absolutely nothing to meet the needs of that priest's victims. Whose needs and concerns he would fight to deny, diminish and repudiate as he advanced up the clerical food chain.
But, alas, she was not. And the moment was lost.
Questioning will resume tomorrow.
In a week or two Cardinal Pell will leave us far behind, and kick the dust of Australia off his sandals. He will take up his new role as guardian of the Church's notoriously corrupt finances. His skill in casuistry will serve him well. If he uncovers a scandal he'll be well equipped to justify to himself and the Vatican that such a scandal can only hurt the church, and should therefore be buried. And if it blows up in his face he'll be far too clever to be found responsible in any specific, legally binding way.
Whatever his future holds we can be sure of one thing.
He is doing this country a great service by leaving it.
Cardinal Pell, the Great Casuist