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Australian bishop stirs controversy


In recent days Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne has drawn fire from educators, gay and lesbian activists and feminists, each upset over separate words or deeds from the conservative Australian prelate.

In late May, some Catholic educators and theologians criticized new guidelines for religious education issued by Pell as overly traditionalist in outlook and too heavily doctrinal, according to the May 23 issue of the Australian newspaper The Sunday Age.

The guidelines, intended to shape how religion will be taught to more than 140,000 students in 300 Catholic schools in the archdiocese, were denounced by critics as clericalist, rule-oriented and biased against women, according to the newspaper report. They were prepared by a committee that included Mary Helen Woods, a spokesperson for the National Civic Council, a well-known conservative advocacy group in Australia.

An official of the Catholic teachers’ union in the archdiocese told the newspaper the guidelines contained “some pretty bizarre” material, but a spokesperson for Pell said they marked a return to the solid religious education that Catholicism offered before the impact of secularization in the 1960s and 1970s.

Brigidine Sr. Brigid Arthur, an educator in the Melbourne archdiocese, criticized the guidelines for their silence on religious diversity. “Where Christians are killing non-Christians in the thousands” in Kosovo, she said, “this is appalling.”

An official said that Pell was proceeding with plans to have new textbooks based on the guidelines ready by 2001.

Meanwhile, Pell angered homosexuals on May 23 by refusing to give Communion to people in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral wearing rainbow sashes — the seventh time Pell has turned away activists wearing the sashes. According to reports, he offered them a blessing, which many rejected, rather than Communion.

The activists told reporters they came to St. Patrick’s to protest “the anti-homosexual stance of the Catholic church and homophobia in the Catholic school system,” which they claimed plays a part in suicides by gay and lesbian youth. The group laid a wreath outside the cathedral in honor of gay and lesbian youths who have killed themselves.

Pell was unfazed. “We will be doing nothing to encourage the spread of the gay agenda in Catholic schools and we will be consistently working to oppose it,” he said.

Pell added to the controversy by calling homosexuality a “greater health hazard than smoking,” referring to the diseases associated with AIDS.

An Australian newspaper later reported that AIDS has killed 5,732 in Australia and New Zealand since the onset of the epidemic in 1982, while smoking-related illnesses claim almost 18,000 lives a year in the two countries.

On the same day, Pell’s “Pentecost Message” lamented that men are often stereotyped in society and the media as either a “wimp” or “macho,” a development he blamed in part on feminism. He called on men to reject media images that show them with little real role in the family.

“Changing sexual mores have contributed to this, as has the anti-male ideology of some feminism,” Pell wrote.

His comments brought an immediate rebuke from well-known Australian feminist Eva Cox, who urged Pell to “put a sock in it and get in touch with reality.”

“Stereotypes don’t come from feminism, they come from life,” she said.

Since taking over in Melbourne in 1996, Pell, 58, has made headlines for protesting art exhibits he considered blasphemous and for challenging Catholic authors he sees as unorthodox.

Wire services contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999