Dead Men Do Tell Tales

Midway through the first volume (2019) of his Prison Journal, Australian Cardinal George Pell records that: “Every type of Catholic should realise that there is an exclusion zone around the Eucharist, where adults without faith and without basic good practice should not enter. Years ago, a prominent criminal who was in jail was known to be Catholic. ‘Does he come to the jail Masses?’ the chaplain was asked. ‘Yes’ was the reply. ‘Does he receive Communion?’ The chaplain explained, ‘No, he doesn’t because he has faith.’”

Pell had much more to say about the Mass and Holy Eucharist in other contexts, as did Pope Benedict (see especially his masterpiece The Spirit of the Liturgy). Indeed, they both sensed that recovering a deep reverence for the Sacrament, “the source and summit” of the Christian life (Vatican II), would also resolve many vexed questions in the Church. And no small number in the contemporary world.

It’s in that deeper context that we need to appreciate texts that recently surfaced by or about these two great churchmen, who just died ten days apart, rather than in the adolescent media frenzy over what are always rather sordid – and now rather tiresome – Vatican politics.

There’s much heat, to be sure, in two brief essays by Pell: one that appeared in the London Spectator the day after he died (he expected to be alive at its publication) calling the tangled mess of the Synod on Synodality “a toxic nightmare” (here); and the other a tart memo that had been circulating among the Cardinals since March under the pseudonym “Demos” (here), now believed to be his. What matters most, however, is not the soap opera clash with figures in the Vatican – including the pope – but the clarity and force Pell brings to the nature of what Christ bequeathed to us in the sacraments and sacred doctrine.

Especially compared with the confusion and sloppiness that mark the current “synodal process.” In Pell’s reading of a synodal interim report: “its account of the discussions of the first stage of ‘listening and discernment’, held in many parts of the world. . .is one of the most incoherent documents ever sent out from Rome.”

The Synod proposes a different mission than Jesus’ Great Commission to “preach the Gospel to all nations”:

According to this recent update of the good news, “synodality” as a way of being for the Church is not to be defined, but just to be lived. It revolves around five creative tensions, starting from radical inclusion and moving towards mission in a participatory style, practicing “co-responsibility with other believers and people of good will.” Difficulties are acknowledged, such as war, genocide and the gap between clergy and laity, but all can be sustained, say the Bishops, by a lively spirituality.

Besides the usual paralysis over longstanding teachings on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, divorce, remarriage, even polygamy – and the usual pieties about women, the marginalized, and the environment: “What is one to make of this potpourri, this outpouring of New Age good will?”

[Photo: L’Osservatore Romano, March 1, 2013)

It is not a summary of Catholic faith or New Testament teaching. It is incomplete, hostile in significant ways to the apostolic tradition and nowhere acknowledges the New Testament as the Word of God, normative for all teaching on faith and morals. The Old Testament is ignored, patriarchy rejected and the Mosaic Law, including the Ten Commandments, is not acknowledged.

Pell’s earlier memo is equally blunt, claiming that in the eyes of everyone, except for a few figures close to the pope, “this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe.” Not only is Francis failing to maintain truths of the faith, when he speaks to them it often creates greater confusion. Pell lists the usual moral controversies but even identifies a kind of uncertainty on something basic like monotheism (e.g., Pachamama at the Synod on the Amazon).

The orthodox are suspect, the heterodox welcomed. Canonical procedures are ignored, phones are tapped, finances (which Pell was ready to reform) are better but still bad. There’s “little support among seminarians and young priests and wide-spread disaffection exists in the Vatican Curia.”

So what must the next conclave do? First, restore “normality,” meaning the careful and coherent functioning of the Church at all levels. All measured by a fundamental premise: “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.”

That Pell wrote both these texts during the past year – after his bizarre and unjust imprisonment over trumped up abuse charges (a sentence overturned by Australia’s High Court) – strengthens belief in his innocence and commitment to living the Faith.

It’s not surprising that this large, once pro-level Australian footballer spoke his mind once he was back in Rome. It is a bit surprising that, just days after Pope Benedict died, we learned that his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, was publishing a book “Nothing But the Truth.” The publishers have promoted it as a “tell-all” text, settling scores. But reading around in the Italian (there’s no English translation yet) shows it’s not. It’s something better.

Like Ratzinger himself, it’s mild, a (mostly) calm and affectionate recounting of Gänswein’s life with Cardinal, pope, pope emeritus. He reveals Benedict’s puzzlement at Pope Francis’s refusal to answer the five dubia (questions) addressed to him by four Cardinals, and his predictable distress over Amoris Laetitia, doctrinal confusions, and curtailing of the Traditional Latin Mass. Its greatest interest is the window it opens on the decade Benedict passed quietly in his residence on the Vatican grounds. Even for those of us who regret his resignation, his tranquil faith over those years offers an encouraging example of faith in turbulent times. As is his “Spiritual Testament” (here).

These two great men bring to mind T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

                   . . .the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Let’s hope so. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine .


You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Pope Francis Oversteps the Papal Office

Eduardo J. Echeverria’s The Idiosyncratic Pope Francis

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.