NCR Report: Pell’s posthumous complaints have diminished his legacy


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January 18, 2023

Not since King Hamlet appeared to Bernardo, Marcellus and Horatio on the battlements of Elsinore Castle has a ghost caused so much trouble. The late Cardinal George Pell, speaking posthumously by means of a previously unpublished article and an anonymous text of which Pell is now known to be the author, has shown the face of the opposition to Pope Francis in all its overwrought self-absorption. 

The grace with which the late cardinal handled his physical imprisonment, and about which I voiced admiration last week, now melts like a snowflake in the palm of one’s hand from the sin of pride. That pride had evidently imprisoned the cardinal spiritually.

Soon after the cardinal died, British journalist Damian Thompson published an article Pell had written shortly before he died voicing concerns about the synodal process. Then, Italian Vaticanista Sandro Magister revealed that the anonymous memo he published last year — detailing a list of items that afflict the church and, specifically, what kind of pope was needed — had been written by Pell.

None of the complaints Pell lodged against the synod were particularly new. You can hear similar whining almost any week on EWTN. Pell asserts that the synodal process is a “toxic nightmare” and its working document an “outpouring of New Age good will,” which “nowhere acknowledges the New Testament as the Word of God, normative for all teaching on faith and morals.” Pell observes that the “ex-Anglicans among us are right to identify the deepening confusion, the attack on traditional morals and the insertion into the dialogue of neo-Marxist jargon about exclusion, alienation, identity, marginalisation, the voiceless, LGBTQ as well as the displacement of Christian notions of forgiveness, sin, sacrifice, healing, redemption.”

Who knew that a churchman like Pell, who had been a priest since 1966, could be so easily confused? I wonder who suggested to him that exclusion and alienation were unknown until Karl Marx set quill to scroll? How is it that a pope who has returned the concept (and practice) of mercy to its proper and central place at the heart of the kerygma of the Gospels can be said to be overseeing a process that displaces “Christian notions of forgiveness, sin, sacrifice, healing and redemption”?

The previously anonymous memo is even worse, with direct attacks on Pope Francis. “Previously it was: ‘Roma locuta. Causa finita est.’ Today it is: ‘Roma loquitur. Confusio augetur,’ ” Pell wrote. Pope Francis is chided for being silent in the face of concerns Pell thinks should be dismissed as heretical, even while there is “active persecution of the Traditionalists and the contemplative convents.”

Pell frets that the Christocentrism of our teaching is being threatened, although one would be hard-pressed to think of a talk or text from this pope that was not meaningfully Christocentric. Alas, “Pachamama is idolatrous.” Evidently, inculturation is OK when it results in devotion to, say, the Infant of Prague but not when an image of a pregnant woman is seen as a sign of God’s providence, something St. Pope John Paul II recognized in 1985 during a homily in Cuzco. 

If Pell’s complaints are not particularly interesting, it is fascinating to see how his cult is taking shape and, specifically, who aspires to play Elisha to Pell’s Elijah?

Tim Busch, the rightwing plutocrat who has sought to shape the church in his own image, penned a fawning tribute to Pell for the National Review. “I once called Cardinal George Pell a living saint,” Busch writes. “He didn’t like it.” On this point, I side with Pell.

Busch goes on to explain how he became chummy with the cardinal and how he helped the cardinal “educate priests and religious about the fundamentals of financial reporting and accountability.”

So, the petty corruption caught by better methods of reporting and accountability was bad, but the more fundamental corruption of our Catholic social teaching by trying to reconcile it with spread eagle capitalism is OK?

George Weigel, at First Things, echoes the sycophantic nonsense, applauding Pell for his dismissive stance towards climate change, and adding a few cliches of his own: “He spoke truth to media power.”

I understand Weigel is upset to lose a source, but let us remember Pell was born in Ballarat not on Krypton.

Unsurprisingly, Archbishop Charles Chaput announced his bid to claim the mantle of Pell with an interview at The Pillar. Asked about Vatican II, Chaput allows that “the Church did need to adjust her approach to the world and speak to the new conditions framing her mission. That was the intent of John XXIII in convening it; of Paul VI in concluding it; and of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in applying its teachings.”

Hmmm. Anyone missing from that list of recent pontiffs? (Hint: I do not refer to John Paul I.) Is Chaput implying that Francis is somehow not applying the teachings of Vatican II?

On the synod, Chaput says the process is “imprudent and prone to manipulation, and manipulation always involves dishonesty.” And he affirms unequivocally that “The claim that Vatican II somehow implied the need for synodality as a permanent feature of Church life is simply false.”

In analyzing the way the pope being a Jesuit might affect his leadership, Chaput opined, “I do think it’s clear that Francis governs like a Jesuit superior general, top-down with little collaborative input.”

So, which is it: The pope is too synodal or the pope is too autocratic?

There is a limit to which Chaput can fulfill the role of leader of the opposition. He was the first archbishop of Philadelphia in a century not to be named a cardinal, so he will not be in the next conclave.

Chaput never had to take the cardinalatial oath. Pell did. Like all cardinals, he once pledged:

I, N, Cardinal of Holy Roman Church, promise and swear, from this day forth and as long as I live, to remain faithful to Christ and his Gospel, constantly obedient to the Holy Apostolic Roman Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff. …

Did Pell forget?

He has, with these posthumous complaints, forever diminished his legacy. Chaput is working on damaging his. In their shared belief that their approach to ministry, and their approach only, is the necessary way to follow the Lord Jesus, they display precisely the hubris pretending to be certainty that has played such a large role in the church’s loss of credibility. Both men convinced themselves that they are the solution to the problems of the church and, therefore, the world.

Of course, they resent the fact that Pope Francis, in his willingness to listen, is pointing the church to a new and fruitful path.

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Why do we have so many ‘eejits’ in high positions in our church?

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Pell’s ‘catastrophe’ memorandum stains his legacy


    I always tried to give Cardinal George Pell the benefit of the doubt, which is why it is so disappointing to find out that the Australian prelate, who died Jan. 10, was the author of a memorandum attacking Pope Francis.

    The memo, published on a Vatican blog last March under the pseudonym “Demos,” was circulated to members of the College of Cardinals in anticipation of the next conclave. After the cardinal’s death it was revealed as Pell’s work by the Italian journalist Sandro Magister.

    Pell first came on my radar screen when Francis put him in charge of Vatican finances. My friends Down Under, where he had been archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, were happy to see him go to Rome because he had been more pugnacious than pastoral. A former Australian rules football player, he was always ready for a brawl with anyone who opposed him.

    Although these are not the qualities you look for in a bishop, they were exactly the qualities needed for someone reforming Vatican finances. The pope needed someone who would not be intimidated by high-ranking clerics with fancy titles, someone willing to take on an entrenched bureaucracy.

    I thought the appointment was brilliant. It got him out of Sydney and put him where his talents fit the job. I did not care about his theological views as long as he rooted out corruption and inefficiency in the Vatican.

    Pell was attacked by insiders for not understanding the culture of the Vatican, for not understanding how things work. But Pell did not come to Rome to make friends. He came to upset the status quo, and I cheered him on.

    When he was accused of abusing an altar boy, I neither condemned him nor defended him. I was willing to let the Australian justice system do its job. Australia’s highest court eventually ruled in his favor.

    Pell did not hide the fact that he was a doctrinal conservative who opposed modifications that made the church more pastorally sensitive to people in complex situations, such as LGBTQ and divorced Catholics. Since Francis had urged members of the synod of bishops to speak boldly and not be afraid of disagreeing with him, I cannot criticize Pell for speaking his mind.

    But in authoring an anonymous memorandum attacking Francis, Pell crossed a line.

    By not taking responsibility for the memo, Pell for the first time in his life showed himself a coward. He was not willing to publicly stand behind his words. This was totally against character for a man who never avoided a fight. What a disappointment.

    Second, Pell seemed to have forgotten that Francis was the one who called him to Rome to be part of his team. Francis encouraged open discussion and debate but expected his team to support his decisions.

    It is one thing to argue with the pope behind closed doors; it is another thing to stab him in the back. In his memo, Pell refers to the Francis papacy as a “disaster” and a “catastrophe.” You don’t do that to your boss, especially when he had stood by you when you were indicted. Shame.

    Third, Pell forgot that he was a bishop, not an op-ed writer. His memorandum is a diatribe of indictments, not a reasoned argument.

    Compare this memo to the writings of Cardinal Walter Kasper and Archbishop John Quinn. Both of those prelates were known to have disagreements with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but they wrote in a fraternal and scholarly tone that respected the papal office. Pell, on the other hand, joined Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in mudslinging. What a disgrace.

    During the papacies of John Paul and Benedict, conservatives accused anyone who disagreed with them of being heretics or of being “cafeteria Catholics,” who picked and chose which teachings they would accept. Many of these conservatives were themselves cafeteria Catholics, for that matter, because they ignored John Paul’s and Benedict’s teaching on economic justice, peace and the environment. Their hypocrisy became even more evident with their rejection of Francis.
    It is one thing to argue with the pope behind closed doors; it is another thing to stab him in the back.

    In a Sept. 27, 2021, column, I offered five rules for disagreeing with the pope. They are worth repeating:

    First, be respectful.

    Second, if you disagree with a pope, be sure to emphasize the positive things that he has done.

    Third, describe the pope’s position accurately and completely; do not create a straw man that can be easily knocked down.

    Fourth, never speak or write when you are emotionally upset.

    Fifth, ask yourself, would you speak this way to a parent or someone you love?

    Our internal church discussions should follow the same rules as our ecumenical dialogue: Disagreements should lead to fuller knowledge and improvements and ultimately consensus.

    That way, as the old song goes, “They will know that we are Christians by our love,” rather than knowing we are Catholics by our fight

  3. Michael J. Toner says:

    Cardinal Pell`s role in inflicting the present English translation of the mass on us is another infamous thing of his which lives on, day by day, Sunday after Sunday. It epitomises exactly the sort of church he wanted to maintain: ossified, backward-looking and hierarchical.

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