Cardinal George Pell. Photo: Joe Armao
It was about 60 years ago, when he was a young teenager, that big bruising George Pell first heard the words of B.A. Santamaria in a church hall. It was in about 1954 or 1955, probably, in context, slightly before the Evatt denunciation which led inevitably to the split in the Labor Party.
It was one of Santamaria's party pieces on the menace of communism - a subject on which he had been well rehearsed since he saw a fundamental clash of civilisations in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. There, on the one side was the noble Falangist, General Franco, fighting for Christian civilisation with only the help of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Ranged against him was the elected government of Spain, full of atheists, anarchists, communists of all stripes and nationalities. And Russia, an international communist conspiracy against European Christian civilisation, and its bulwark, the Catholic Church.
Forces of good fighting faces of evil.
On an issue like that, a man could be defined for all time. Whose side was he on? Did he even have the wit to understand that compared with all of the other trifling matters of the world, this was virtually the only thing that mattered? For those who saw it that way, it was like one of the crusades of nearly 1000 years before - something, indeed, that could win one salvation.
Santamaria, an older Pell recalled, ''set out to identify the mighty forces under the swirl of events. He often appealed to history. We felt we too belonged to the forces of good fighting the new faces of evil, as saints and heroes had done for thousands of years''.
''He placed us in a grand tradition of worthy struggle and combat, where we felt we could do our bit. Some of us never completely lost this conviction.''
Another warrior who dared to feel that he could make a difference after captivation by Santamaria's urgent call to action, was Tony Abbott. His call to fight for Christ the King came nearly 20 years after Pell, if at about the same age. By then Santamaria was no longer so preoccupied with communism alone, even as bodies he had helped create continued to wage war on institutional and now institutionalised establishments of the left. Regularisation of this establishment, indeed, had helped create a new enemy - secular liberalism, a philosophy so sinister that it had even penetrated the church and was making it ineffective. Heavens, there were Catholics about - including me - who wondered whether Santamaria had even made the right call on Spain.
David Marr, in an incisive discussion of the character and personality of Pell published this week as a Quarterly Essay, remarks that ''Santamaria instilled in his followers a habit of discovering everywhere in the world around them a contest between the forces of good and evil.''
Pell is shown as a recruit, soldier, officer and finally general in this ultimate struggle for the hearts and the souls of men and women. But it is only one of a number of facets of the Pell personality with which he is concerned.
The essay is not, first, a portrait, nor an attempt, of itself, to give a balanced picture, even if Marr strives scrupulously to be fair, and by and large succeeds. But the purpose is not to tell Pell's story so much as to ask why he and the church, but he in particular, has been so deaf to the feel, the emotion and the gravity of sexual abuse in the church. And why Pell has seemed so ham-fisted - and so truculent and unempathetic - as he, and the church under his control, has struggled to cope.
On paper, Pell did many things right once he appreciated - late, but early compared with some other bishops - the seriousness and the prevalence of the problem. On paper, he has repeatedly apologised to victims for the abuse by others and for the institutional failures of the church in dealing with it. But he has had a tin ear for victims' feelings, an obvious frustration with the ''wallowing'' in the problem (which he suspects is for other motives) and anger that the more important work of the church
(including the fight against secular liberalism) is continually distracted by (or ignored because of) the lamentations of the victims, and the preoccupations of the media, and the widespread feeling that ''George simply doesn't get it''.
Pell, as a leader and administrator of great archdioceses of the church, is a steward of its fortunes, and its staff. The church has been accused of being more focused on protecting its assets and reputation than in reaching out to its victims and its congregations - what a famous pope once described as the true riches of the church.
Marr's essay, like earlier essays on Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd, is essential reading for a Catholic, or a political animal.
But those who invest in doing so might well read also a review, in e-magazine Eureka Street, by Jesuit journalist and communicator Andy Hamilton.
Hamilton is like most Jesuits from the pope down, no particular friend of Pell but charitable nonetheless. He fixes particularly on Pell's account of being mesmerised by Santamaria in Ballarat 60 years ago.
''[The essay] left me, as good essays should, asking a further question: what else must there be to explain the trust placed in Pell by bishops and popes, the responsible positions he has held, his hold on the popular imagination, the warm associations he has formed with so many significant Australians, the way in which he has polarised Catholics, and the directions in which he has wanted to take the Catholic Church in Australia?'' Hamilton says.
''To answer that question from the evidence that Marr provides, it may help to empathise with the vision that inspired Pell to become a priest.
''He was attracted to the warrior's dream of defending the Catholic church and faith against its foes at a time of peril. In the 1950s the peril from communism seemed real and the image of a persecuted church was resonant. The single-mindedness of the warrior who leads people to war for a righteous cause can be an attractive one, especially to young men. In the Christian world it has been honoured in people like Athanasius, Thomas More and Joan of Arc, in secular terms in Bolivar and Mandela, and in sporting terms in indomitable players like Michael Voss and Darren Lockyer.
''In the 1950s Catholics could see communism as an enemy. But in the churches that Pell came to lead, his identification of secularism as the enemy was not widely shared. Nor did many accept his diagnosis that the diminishment and discontents of the Catholic Church came from compromise with prevailing secular attitudes, reflected in disagreements over matters of faith and morals.
''But it is not difficult to see why he believed it. He was right to recognise that the future of the church could not be built on members of religious congregations or on the ageing educated Catholics who had been inspired by the Vatican Council.
''He saw the future to lie with younger clergy and with young Catholic leaders who shared his combative loyalty to the church and identified with the struggle against secularism. He encouraged their growth. Pell's vision and strategy were well received in Rome but they needed to be commended if they were to shape Australian church culture.
''That is always the challenge when fighting against the tide. Warriors seek followers and not a reflective community. They become impatient with people who seem to be half-hearted and to undermine the campaign.
''But if a church culture is to be changed, people need to be encouraged and persuaded.
''Indeed if Catholics feel disapproved of by their leaders they become timid and resentful. In Melbourne, at least, far too many Catholic conversations focused on the archbishop and on his latest doings instead of focusing on what people could do without approval. These conversations took up all the oxygen that could have been used for living. Little changed.
''If I imagine myself in Pell's position, I might be finally disappointed that after years of struggle, the city churches that he has led look so little different from the other capital city churches, and that the battle against secularism must now be fought from the lowlands of sexual abuse against artillery firing down from the high moral ground.
''But as with other indomitable warriors, I have great respect for a man who has shown such pertinacity and endurance in fighting a cause that has always been against the tide and the times.''
The Jesuits, he does not have to say, have a fundamental story about this. It is the story of the turning point of the founder of their order - Ignatius of Loyola, when, as a Basque mercenary soldier , braggart and gadabout, he read, while injured, words that profoundly affected him: ''What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?'' Ignatius went on to found the Society of Jesus, with self-conscious intellectual muscle, which was to play a leading part in the Counter-Reformation and help restore a church badly wounded by the popular spiritual revolt against its clear excesses.
That's a phrase - from the Gospel of Mark (or Matthew) - with which many a Jesuit schoolboy, including a significant number of the men in the Abbott cabinet and Abbott himself, has been invited to consider what he is doing, and why and what for.
It's by no means an injunction against engaging with the world, or even being ambitious for power or preferment within it. But it is an invitation to ask why, for what purpose, or even how. One of the persistent strongest criticisms of Santamaria by his Catholic enemies, for example, was an accusation that, for him, ends often justified means. In an essentially pacifist church, he also often seemed to argue that war against godless communism, and its local manifestations, was not only inevitable, but desirable.
It may be, indeed, that the very sense of fundamental struggle and crusade that he instilled in his followers and the secretive and conspiratorial techniques it adopted, provided its own bullets and renewed zeal to his enemies. At the end of his life, Santamaria himself doubted he had made much difference to the world or the faith. He, by and large, preferred old adversaries, to many of whom he became reconciled, to many of his old allies, whom he had come to despise. [Though he never lost affection for Abbott or Pell.]
By Hamilton's judgment, Pell's failures over abuse have been in part because abuse did not fit into the big narrative he had adopted. It was always a distraction - a duty perhaps, but not in the main game. Alas the sideshow may now be the show itself.
Marr is more brutal, but not dismissive. Forty years after the collapse of the Democratic Labour Party the movement has one man in the Curia and another in the Lodge: ''Pell is about to live the dream of every prince of the church: to be spiritual adviser to a national leader''.
But he ends describing Pell's rise to deliver a homily in his cathedral.
''Words fail him in the pulpit this morning. He can't preach. Despite flashes here and there, his words are so shallow, so impersonal. Spiritual insight is sparse. He is intelligent, has led an extraordinary life and pursued big ambitions. Yet when he speaks there is so little there.''
George can't drag them in the way Santamaria could. Nor can Abbott.