George Pell and the SNAFU Principle

geroge pellCurrently in Australia much focus is being given to the incredible display of Cardinal George Pell giving testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse via video link from Rome. I won’t report much of that here: Google and be amazed yourself.

What I will say is that Cardinal’s Pell’s repeated refrain of ‘I knew nothing’ about the vast amount of abusive and paedophilic behaviour occurring under his watch rings both false and true to me. Most of my contemporaries and peers think it is all a pack of muck-muck. However, while I think that, I also do not think that.

This seems contradictory and if the institution (the Roman Catholic Church) Pell represents was functional and healthy it would be so. But it is not, and the good Cardinal is the product of an institution that has taken the SNAFU principle to its apotheosis by including the concept of consecrated spokesmen of God at its highest points. Let me explain.

The SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up) principle as I read it as teenager in St Bob is explained in this diagram:

Here we may readily substitute workers for peasants, middle managers for knights, upper management for nobles and CEO for King. Or in Pell’s case, the laity, episcopacy, cardinals and pope.

SNAFU – power down and information filtered up.

The crucial element here is that power comes down from the top and information is FILTERED as it rises to the top. That is, the peasants learn very quickly to only tell the knights what they think the knights want to hear, who do the same for the nobles etc. Because otherwise a mighty shit storm will descend upon them from high. The result is the King knows less about what is really going on his kingdom than the most uneducated serf and his decisions will reflect that ignorance.

I remember when a school friend was elected as an MP and I was ranting to him about some of the more notorious decisions of former PM John Howard which showed he was about as ‘in touch’ with the Australian public as a starved shark. My friend calmly replied, ‘well, yes he would have been told that the most Australians think that way and honestly would have thought any other voice was simply being negative’. He knew the SNAFU principle well, my friend. Needless to say he did not last long in politics.

So, yes SNAFU. This happens in most structured organisations, even families. And it happens ALL THE TIME. I’ve seen it occur in the most mundane spheres, like the purchase of scissors for an office.

Now focusing on the RCC, the power and awe given to priests, let alone those higher in the hierarchy, is staggering. Most non-Catholics will not understand this. Most congregations back when Pell was a simple priest were taught to see Priests as something other than human. I’ve seen elderly parishioners almost wet themselves when a priest accepted their invitation to dinner. I was not raised Catholic but have studied the culture a bit from up close and my reports here are considered accurate by friends who were raised Catholic.

So once we have the concept of a divinely appointed, ordained person up high in the SNAFU pyramid we are in serious trouble. And let’s not forget Catholic Church has a highly regimented structure, founded on, and this is important, Roman Imperial principles.

And when we add to this the vast amount of power plays and manoeuvres in the church, the old boys club mentality, we have hit an even nastier level of dysfunction.  Then let’s add the practice of not removing from office men who are manifestly insane (and I have friends who suffered as children from such priests) simply because they are ordained. And let’s top it off with a situation far more crucial than purchasing scissors – the vile, extremely secretive, and not even admitted-to-the-consciousness abuse and rape of children. We have now entered the world of a byzantine cluster-fuck, mind-game, sandwich most people would not believe.

Within this incredibly abusive and dysfunctional ‘atmosphere’ (an esotericist would say ‘egregore’) the flow of accurate information would be extremely hard to predict, let alone manage. And even when news entered the consciousness, it would hardly be believed, let alone acted up. Then there would be dinner, a sermon to write and it would be shunted into the big bag of ‘I don’t want to fucking know’ we all carry around inside. That Cardinal Pell’s bag is larger, murkier and more evil than most seems beyond dispute. What he did this with, what he ‘knows’, does not know and what he does not want to know and what he will not tell, we cannot actually discern from the given evidence.

I am not here commenting on Cardinal Pell’s legal guilt or innocence at all. That is impossible to do, and we must resist conflating moral guilt based on our own limited knowledge with legal guilt. What I am exploring is the effects an incredibly dysfunctional church has on these matters of real, embodied evil.

Pell may have ‘to go’ as many people have said, and called on His Holiness to do, but the removal of Pell may not change a thing in the RCC itself. It will go a small way to redressing some of the pain caused to the numerous victims of known abusers under the authority of the Cardinal. For that reason alone, I also call for Cardinal Pell, now in his mid-70s, to retire gracefully and with full remorse. He should be willing and happy to ‘sacrifice’ his remaining years of power and prestige to comfort those who have been hurt the most.

Whether the RCC can actually change if Cardinal Pell (and others) leaves remains to be seen. I have my doubts. The structure is too fixed, too mired in dysfunction for any hope of a quick change. The most sensible thing on this I have seen was a tweet today from Fr Bob McGuire:

ALL general members (of the Church) wherever located must now occupy Catholicism from the ground up…as urged by Vatican2 in 1950’s.

Actually Vatican II was in the early 60s, but two points are clear: a groundswell is needed to sweep out the millennia of old filth, and the church changes very slowly. Typically moribund organisations require the generation in power that resists change to die before it can be enacted. It’s now half a century since Vatican II…

And even when there might be change in the RCC, I worry that it will not be be genuine and will come in a ‘New Labour’ form where the old dysfunction is masked in modern language, style and image – the Roman Empire learnt to adapt to local and changing conditions, remember. A new form can easily contrast the ‘old dinosaurs’ like George Pell but offer no real spiritual renewal.

This to me would be a tragedy equal to that on display in Rome these days. Because more children will be hurt, more abuse will occur and more pain will be caused. As a wonderful parish priest of mine concluded her sermon once:

Evil most often enters the world through the words of a reasonable man.

Let’s keep an eye out for those reasonable men.


One comment

  1. MvdV · March 4, 2016

    The end of Royal France in the French Revolution, End of the German Empire and the Weimer Republic, collapse of the Ottoman Empire… All suffered from this issue and the corruption of control and maintenance of personal power (or the appearance of such).

    The Californication ep on last night actually mirrored this post, Tim Minchin plays a super star who acknowledges he has be separated from reality of ‘normal people’ for so long, he is no longer able to write music that they can connect with any more and requires a dose of ‘reality’ (all occurring on his luxury jet of course). Comedy gold, but a nice illustration of the issue. An excruciating 10 minutes of watching any of the ‘Real Housewives’ will also illistrait the same point.

    Saint Pratchett of Irrelevance also does a wonderful investigation of this issue with his excellent ‘Small Gods’. A church becomes so powerful that it replaces belief in their God, with belief in the Church and the maintenance of its power…



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