Explainer: Cardinal Pell’s complicated (and critical) relationship with Pope Francis
Pope Francis prayed the final commendation and blessing over the coffin of Cardinal George Pell in St. Peter’s Basilica on Jan. 14. The Australian cardinal, who had died on Jan. 10 at the age of 81, appears not to have expected this event to unfold. Soon after the consistory of cardinals last August, he began telling people that Pope Francis was not in good health and was suffering from a serious illness.
On the day after Cardinal Pell’s death, John Allen, the editor of Crux and a close friend of the cardinal’s since his days as archbishop of Sydney, revealed that “during one of our recent exchanges, Pell speculated that Pope Francis was suffering from an undisclosed illness related to his colon surgery in 2021 and that we’d have a conclave before Christmas.”
It was no secret in Rome that the Australian cardinal and several other cardinals were meeting regularly and, some said, discussing the next conclave. They shared a common unhappiness, even dislike, for the pontificate of Pope Francis and looked forward to the election of his successor, whom they hoped would be in the mold of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that after Cardinal Pell’s death, it was revealed that the now much-talked about memorandum denouncing Pope Francis’ papacy—which had been published under a pseudonym in March 2022 on the blog of Sandro Magister, an influential and respected Italian journalist and longtime friend of the Australian churchman—was in fact written by Cardinal Pell.
Sandro Magister: “Cardinal Pell came to my house with the printed text of the memorandum he had written, and said he wanted it published under the pseudonym ‘demos.’”
The cardinal’s authorship of the memo raised several questions: Why did Pell, who was unafraid to state his mind openly on any question before, opt for a pseudonym? Why did Mr. Magister decide to reveal the author’s name the day after his death?
I put these questions to Mr. Magister on Jan. 15. “Cardinal Pell came to my house with the printed text of the memorandum he had written, and said he wanted it published under the pseudonym ‘demos,’” [Editor’s note: In Greek, “demos” means “the common people”]. Mr. Magister said Cardinal Pell had told him that the memo was “circulating among cardinals.”
Mr. Magister confirmed that he agreed to publish the text and did not ask the cardinal’s motives to have the text published under a pseudonym. After their meeting, “the cardinal sent me the full text by email to facilitate its publication,” he said. Sometime after its publication, the cardinal told him he was “very pleased” with the way it was published.
Mr. Magister then told me that he had “never revealed the author’s name to anyone until Jan. 11,” when he took the “personal decision” to do so, because with the cardinal’s death, “I no longer feel constrained by the bond of anonymity.”
The memorandum is divided into two parts: The first is a harsh critique of the present pontificate, the second looks to the next conclave and profiles the next pope.
“Commentators of every school, if for different reasons, with the possible exception of Father Spadaro, S.J., agree that this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe,” Cardinal Pell writes, in the opening bombshell line that has left many cardinals and Vatican officials incredulous.
He then launches into a six-point assault on Francis. “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,” he writes. “Previously,” he adds, quoting St. Augustine, “‘Roma locuta. Causa finita est’ (Rome has spoken; the cause is finished),” but “Today it is: ‘Roma loquitur. Confusio augetur’ (Rome speaks; confusion increases).”
He goes on, among other things, to accuse Francis’ pontificate of remaining “silent” on the Synodal Way in Germany, and on Cardinal Hollerich’s “heretical” statements on sexuality, while engaging in “active persecution” of traditionalists and contemplative nuns. He also states that under Francis, “Christ is being moved from the center,” and “the Christo-centric legacy of St. John Paul II in faith and morals is under systematic attack,” and that Rome seems “confused” about “strict monotheism.”
In Part II, he looks to “the next conclave” where, even though he was no longer an elector, he likely thought he could play a role as kingmaker.
He asserts that “the lack of respect for the law in the Vatican risks becoming an international scandal” and advocates for “due process” for Cardinal Becciu—whom Francis removed from head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and who is now on trial for alleged financial crimes in his previous role as the third-highest-ranking official at the Secretariat of State.
Cardinal Pell also denounces the financial situation in the Vatican as “grave,” although he admits that the problems predated the papacies of Benedict XVI and Francis. He charges that “the political influence of Pope Francis and the Vatican is negligible,” and that there have been “grave failures to support human rights” in Venezuela, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Ukraine, and “no public support for loyal Catholics in China.”
In Part II, he looks to “the next conclave” where, even though he was no longer an elector, he likely thought he could play a role as kingmaker. After lamenting that Francis had “weakened” the College of Cardinals “by eccentric nominations,” he proffers his profile of the next pope: “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.
“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 hindrance for all bishops and especially archbishops.”
He warns that “if the national or continental synods are given doctrinal authority, we will have a new danger to worldwide Church unity” and that “if there was no Roman correction of such heresy, the Church would be reduced to a loose federation of local Churches, holding different views, probably closer to an Anglican or Protestant model, than an Orthodox model.”
Pell: “Schism is more likely to come from the right and is always possible when liturgical tensions are inflamed and not dampened.”
He concludes, writing that “an early priority for the next pope must be to remove and prevent such a threatening development, by requiring unity in essentials and not permitting unacceptable doctrinal differences. The morality of homosexual activity will be one such flash point.”
He also admits that “While the younger clergy and seminarians are almost completely orthodox, sometimes quite conservative, the new Pope will need to be aware of the substantial changes effected on the Church’s leadership since 2013, perhaps especially in South and Central America,” he writes. “Schism is more likely to come from the right and is always possible when liturgical tensions are inflamed and not dampened.”
Understanding the cardinal’s memo and the article on the synod
Many are asking: “How could a cardinal that Francis had chosen as a close advisor write such things?” To answer this question, the memorandum and the posthumous article attacking the Synod on Synodality, which was published in The Spectator, a conservative British weekly, on Jan. 11, need to be read in the context of Cardinal Pell’s overall relation to Pope Francis and his leadership of the church over the past 10 years.
That the Australian cardinal was not happy with Francis’ leadership hardly comes as a surprise to those who follow Vatican affairs closely. He did not vote for Cardinal Bergoglio in either the 2005 or the 2013 conclaves. Before the 2005 conclave, he openly told people that he would vote for Cardinal Ratzinger to succeed John Paul II and he lobbied for this inside that conclave. He had come to know Ratzinger well while serving as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1990 to 2000 and had developed a close friendship with him. After his election, Benedict XVI accepted his invitations to go to Sydney for World Youth Day in July 2008 and in October 2011 to bless the Domus Australia, the first-ever Australian pilgrim guest house in Rome.
What is less well known, that I have learned from multiple sources over the years, is that Benedict XVI had decided to appoint Pell as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in 2010, but, at the last minute, changed his mind, after Vatican and Australian church officials alerted him to the possibility that the cardinal risked facing further problems with the sexual abuse scandals in the Australian church. When the cardinal was archbishop of Sydney he had to step down for some months in 2002 after a man alleged he had abused him 40 years earlier. Though he had been cleared of that, there were concerns other abuse issues might arise. This led Benedict to appoint Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the then-archbishop of Quebec, who is now facing allegations of sexual assault in a class action lawsuit filed in Canada last year.
While the Australian cardinal and the Argentine pope were substantially on the same page regarding financial reforms, the same was not true when it came to some other questions.
Eight days after Benedict XVI resigned, I met with Pell at the Domus Australia and spoke with him about the resignation and the future conclave. I had known the cardinal for many years; we had a good relationship and spoke freely. He said he did not consider Bergoglio as a candidate in the 2013 conclave and considered him “an old-fashioned Jesuit” who had missed his chance in 2005. He led me to understand that he felt Benedict’s successor could be an Italian and, as I learned in my research for my book on the election of Pope Francis, during the 2013 conclave, he lobbied hard to get Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola elected and sought to block Bergoglio’s election.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Francis knew that Cardinal Pell was not on the same page on many questions. They had been together at synods, so he knew that the influential, strong-minded Australian church leader considered himself a standard-bearer for orthodoxy in the church and that one of the adjectives most frequently used to describe him was “polarizing.” Nevertheless, he chose him as a member of his council of eight (later nine) cardinal advisors who would assist him in the reform of the Roman Curia and in the governance of the universal church. Francis wanted cardinal advisors from each of the different regions of the world, and with different, even opposing, views. He did not want groupthink in the council.
As a first step toward the reform of Vatican finances, Francis established the Secretariat for the Economy in February 2014 and appointed Pell its first prefect. He chose him because he appeared to be knowledgeable about financial matters and had the toughness and determination to push through the reforms even in the face of opposition. “The Australian Ranger,” was Francis’ nickname for the cardinal, and he did not disappoint. But he was not able to develop a spirit of cooperation within the Vatican and encountered fierce internal opposition, including from the Secretariat of State, and especially from the Italian then-archbishop Angelo Becciu.
While the Australian cardinal and the Argentine pope were substantially on the same page regarding financial reforms, the same was not true when it came to some other questions. Many have questioned, for example, how he received Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” when four years prior to its publication he appeared to be a climate change denier. The cardinal has also not hidden his discontent with Francis’ approach to moral questions, particularly in the field of sexuality.
Cardinal Pell also did not like the more open style of synod that Pope Francis promotes; he preferred the Curia-controlled style that had prevailed under his two predecessors.
Pell disagrees with Francis’ vision for synods
Cardinal Pell also did not like the more open style of synod that Pope Francis promotes; he preferred the Curia-controlled style that had prevailed under his two predecessors.
He did not like Francis’ call to synod fathers “to leave the comfort zone,” and his warning “against the temptation of complacency, the attitude that says, “We have always done it this way (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 33) and it is better not to change.” Francis emphasizes that loyalty to the deposit of faith doesn’t mean you preserve the ashes, it means you keep the fire lighting, or as he put it, paraphrasing a quote from Gustav Mahler, the composer: “Tradition is the guarantee of the future and not the keeper of the ashes. It’s not a museum.”
Pell also boldly questioned the Synod on the Family. He delivered a letter to Francis on Oct. 5, 2015, which he and 12 other cardinals signed, and which was later made public on Sandro Magister’s blog. The letter expressed concern for the synod’s procedures and its working document, and that the question of communion for the divorced and remarried could dominate the discussion.
He expressed strong disagreement with Francis’ openness to the possibility that those divorced and remarried could be admitted to communion and expressed this in writing from his prison cell in March 2019 at a maximum security prison in Melbourne. He denounced the guidelines on “Amoris Laetitia” approved by the bishops’ conferences of Argentina and Malta as “very dangerous,” even though Francis had explicitly approved the former.
On Aug. 1, 2019, again writing from the prison to members of the “Support Cardinal Pell Group,” the cardinal criticized the working document of the Amazonian synod. “This is not the first low-quality document the Synod secretariat has produced,” he said. “One point is fundamental. The Apostolic Tradition, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, taken from the New Testament and taught by Popes and Councils by the Magisterium, is the only criterion doctrinally for all teaching on doctrine and practice. Amazon or no Amazon, in every land, the Church cannot allow any confusion, much less any contrary teaching, to damage the Apostolic Tradition.”
Pell ripped into the 45-page synod document that synthesized the results of the greatest consultation ever of Catholics in parishes and dioceses around the world.
His article attacking the Synod on Synodality, published posthumously on Jan. 11 by The Spectator, followed in the same trajectory.
With the headline “The Catholic church must free itself from this toxic nightmare,” he ripped into the 45-page synod document—“Enlarge the space of your tent”—that synthesized the results of the greatest consultation ever of Catholics in parishes and dioceses around the world. He denounced it as “one of the most incoherent documents ever sent by Rome.”
He criticized the views in the document that, he writes, “baptismal dignity is to be emphasized, not ministerial ordination, and that governance styles should be less hierarchical and more circular and participative.” “The main actors in all Catholic synods (and councils)… have been the bishops,” he writes. “Bishops are not there simply to validate due process.”
The cardinal also took issues with “the insertion into the dialogue of neo-Marxist jargon about exclusion, alienation, identity, marginalization, the voiceless, LGBTQ as well as the displacement of Christian notions of forgiveness, sin, sacrifice, healing, redemption. Why the silence on the afterlife of reward or punishment, on the four last things; death and judgment, paradise and hell?” he asked. “This working document needs radical changes.”
I asked Cardinal Scola in an interview last year what he thinks about his brother cardinals who publicly criticize Pope Francis. “I will say frankly that while I can understand their internal turmoil—and I think all of them start with good intentions—I do not see the necessity to do this, especially in public,” he said. “There is always the possibility for a cardinal to write to the pope, to request an audience and to seek to explain himself.” Cardinal Scola attributed the origin of many of “the harsh and insolent attacks,” against Francis to “the lack of understanding of the great majority of Christians of the necessary link between experience and doctrine.”
Cardinal Scola: “There is a continuity of method in all these popes.”
“Francis is a pope who starts from experience; he starts first of all from his own personal experience and has no shame in communicating it. And from there he arrives at the formulation of dogma.” For this reason, he said, he disagrees with those people who pit Pope Francis against his predecessors Benedict, John Paul II and Paul VI. “There is a continuity of method in all these popes.”
Francis stands by Pell during his trial for abuse and imprisonment
Pell had to leave Rome in 2017 to face charges in Australia that he had sexually abused two altar boys at the Melbourne Cathedral in the 1990s. Pope Francis stood by him throughout his trial and 404 days in prison. Even after he was convicted and imprisoned in 2018, Francis retained him as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy until the end of his five-year term of office in 2019. He welcomed his acquittal by unanimous decision of a full bench of Australia’s High Court and embraced him on his return to the Vatican in September 2020.
Following Pell’s unexpected death on Jan. 10, Francis expressed his condolences in a telegram to the Dean of the College of Cardinals and to the cardinal’s family. He praised Pell’s “consistent and committed witness, his dedication to the Gospel and the Church, and particularly his diligent cooperation with the Holy See in the context of its recent economic reform, of which he laid the foundations with determination and wisdom.”
Pell’s final public homily
Three days before his death, Cardinal Pell gave his last public homily in Italian, at the Padre Pio retreat center at San Giovanni Rotondo to Communitá Magnificat Dominum, a Catholic charismatic community.
In the homily, he celebrated “the contribution of two great popes,” he said, naming St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who “understood well that we are not the teachers of the apostolic doctrine, we are the defenders: we serve and respect this precious rule of faith.” He described both European popes as “men of courage, but at the same time, prudent” and predicted that “in the future, there may be popes from Asia or Africa.”
He later added to his original prepared text: “Today we have a pope from South America, capable and good (bravo e buono).” It is perhaps significant that he did not mention Pope Francis by name.