Recently, a top cleric at the Vatican released a document through L’Espresso critical of Pope Francis. Under the pseudonym Demos, the late Cardinal George Pell laid out his criticism of Pope Francis and his recommendations for the next conclave to elect the next pope.
In this article, I examine this “memorandum” and evaluate its merits to faithful Catholics. What can we learn from such a document? Furthermore, why would a top advisor to Pope Francis release such criticism?
Let’s dig into it.
Rome Is Silent, Confusion Abounds
The Successor of St. Peter is the rock on which the Church is built, a major source and cause of worldwide unity. Historically (St. Irenaeus), the Pope and the Church of Rome have a unique role in preserving the apostolic tradition, the rule of faith, in ensuring that the Churches continue to teach what Christ and the apostles taught. Previously it was: “Roma locuta. Causa finita est.” Today it is: “Roma loquitur. Confusio augetur.”
The translation of the above is: “Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.” Pell contends that a more accurate reflection of Rome in today’s Church is: “Rome is silent, confusion abounds.” Traditionally, the papal office provided focus and clarity. Modern Catholics experienced this clarifying force during the papacies of St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. St. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor demonstrates this reality perfectly.
The Silence of Rome
Pell cites two specific examples for his criticism on Rome’s silence:
(A) The German synod speaks on homosexuality, women priests, communion for the divorced. The Papacy is silent.
(B) Cardinal Hollerich rejects the Christian teaching on sexuality. The Papacy is silent. This is doubly significant because the Cardinal is explicitly heretical; he does not use code or hints. If the Cardinal were to continue without Roman correction, this would represent another, deeper breakdown of discipline, with few (any?) precedents in history. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must act and speak. [emphasis added]
Moreover, in 2019, Pope Francis did send a letter to the German bishops. The pope also knows of the potential dangers of the direction of the German bishops, stating recently, “In Germany, there is a very good Evangelical Church. We don’t need two.” Taking a quick perusal of the letter, one gets the impression the pope is more concerned with structural reforms than moral ones. As of this writing, the pope remains silent on the German bishops and Cardinal Hollerich.
Christ Not at the Center, Only Confusion
The Christo-centric legacy of St. John Paul II in faith and morals is under systematic attack. Many of the staff of the Roman Institute for the Family have been dismissed; most students have left. The Academy for Life is gravely damaged, e.g., some members recently supported assisted suicide. The Pontifical Academies have members and visiting speakers who support abortion.
Sadly, Pell’s spot on regarding the attack on St. John Paul II’s legacy on faith and morals within the Church. Not only do we see the German’s Synodal Way/Path fall victim to this attack. The Synod of Synodality also reflects a sharp deviation from established Catholic faith and morals. Furthermore, the message sent to the Catholic faithful regarding life issues become confused when the Vatican allows members in support assisted suicide and abortion at the Pontifical Academy of Life.
Recommendations for the Next Pope
The Pope does not need to be the world’s best evangelist, nor a political force. The successor of Peter, as head of the College of Bishops, also successors of the Apostles, has a foundational role for unity and doctrine. The new pope must understand that the secret of Christian and Catholic vitality comes from fidelity to the teachings of Christ and Catholic practices. It does not come from adapting to the world or from money.
Another sad fact Pell need not recommend concerning the next pontiff is fidelity. Fidelity to the teaching of Christ lies at the center (or should) of the papacy. Pell appears to not see this in the current pope, a pope he himself advised and served as prefect for the Secretariat for the Economy. The pope must stand in stark contrast to the world, as did Christ and Peter, the first pope. If the world likes a pope for all the wrong reasons, this presents a major red flag.
Restored Normality and Clarity
The first tasks of the new pope will be to restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the law and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition. Theological expertise and learning are an advantage, not a hinderance for all bishops and especially archbishops.
Furthermore, here Pell makes another appeal to the obvious. As heirs of the apostles, the assumption is that all nominees accept apostolic tradition. He clearly did not think such criteria in effect under Pope Francis. As the primary teachers and shepherds of the Catholic faithful, expertise in the faith they hand on helps in that mission. Moreover, if a bishop fails in this duty, he will answer to God for this at his personal judgement. Therefore, with such a major responsibility, Pell again recommends fidelity.
Of the many lessons learned from Demos, two stand out. First, Cardinal Pell was not a fan of Pope Francis’ papal approach. In the letter, Pell comments on the “decline from the standard of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict” in papal writings. Pope Francis does not write in the clear and concise way of his predecessors. His more nuanced approach leaves room for various interpretations (and misinterpretations). For example, four cardinals requested clarification on Amoris Laetitia in 2016. They did not receive one.
Next, the confusion facilitated by Francis’ pontificate caused the lapse in fidelity to Church teaching to accelerate. Again, the papal silence regarding the Synod of Synodality and the German Synodal Way/Path confirm the legitimacy of Pell’s criticisms. Furthermore, such a concise criticism from someone such as Cardinal Pell cannot go ignored or unheeded.
Why the Criticism?
Pell’s criticism comes from a place of great concern for the Church and the people of God. Criticizing a brother, let alone a friend, is not easy. Why did he do it the way he did? We will never truly know. I think he probably attempted multiple times to give this same advice in private. Maybe considering his age and the state of the Church, Pell decided to allow his words to be seen by the Church he so loved and fought so hard to preserve. Maybe having spent over a year in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit cemented his resolve. Let’s hope and pray those in authority heed his words.
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