No Australian bishop has ever assumed such high rank in the Catholic Church as Cardinal George Pell, who eight months ago became head of the Vatican’s newly created “finance ministry” or Secretariat for the Economy.
For the 73-year-old native of Ballarat, a city about 100 kms west of Melbourne, this is but the latest rung on what has been a steady and seemingly unstoppable rise up the Church’s hierarchical ladder, a climb that began in the pontificate of John Paul II and continued under Benedict XVI. Cardinal Pell’s ascent to key positions of leadership and his attainment of real ecclesiastical power have vexed his critics, including a good number of fellow bishops, as much as they have heartened his fans and allies, many of them so-called “traditionalists” who are devotees of the pre-Vatican II Mass in Latin.
But neither group could have imagined that “Big George” – as they, by turns, call him affectionately or mockingly – would continue to be a major player in the era of Francis. That’s because this Pope’s style and blueprint for reform (just read his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium) seem at times to be as distant from Pell’s view of the Church as the 16,000 km that separate Rome from Sydney. Of course, the cardinal was archbishop in that Australian city from 2001 until last February when he got his prestigious new Vatican post.
Just how prestigious? As head of the Secretariat of the Economy he has wide-sweeping authority over all the financial and administrative activities of the Holy See and Vatican City, including the monitoring of hiring and firing procedures. Yes this is big. In fact, the establishment of this new department was the most radical structural change to the Roman Curia in nearly 50 years.
And it is widely assumed that Pope Francis chose Pell to oversee this fledgling office because of his reputation as a blunt-speaking and no-nonsense administrator, one that’s not afraid to knock heads to get what he wants. While some might call this “determination”, others do not hesitate to use the word “ruthlessness”. But they all agree that the imposing cardinal, someone who’s not afraid to call a spade a shovel, remains unflinching in the face of criticism.
That will be a useful tool in his skill set for the gargantuan and thankless task that lies before him – reforming and reordering a holy mess that is likely to make him (and his team) among the most unpopular, perhaps even despised people in the Vatican. Some believe he’s been asked to do the impossible. But almost all concur that if there is any “outsider” that can pull it off (and only an outsider could) that person is George Pell. After decades of notorious papal appointments to top Vatican jobs, ranging from mediocre to disastrous, Pope Francis’ decision to bring Sydney to Rome should be seen as a masterstroke of both pragmatism and shrewdness.
Actually, the appointment was not as surprising as it might have been. It was almost underwhelming in comparison to the bigger shock that came nearly a year earlier when the Pope named Pell an original member of his council of eight (now nine) cardinal-advisors to help him govern the worldwide Church and reform the Roman Curia. The men he chose for that council immediately appeared to be people who likely voted for him in the conclave, as well as those who more or less shared his vision of Church and agenda for reform. All, it would seem, except Cardinal Pell, whose papal candidate is believed to have been Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan.
Though Pell was one of the loudest voices before the conclave to demand Roman Curia reform, his focus was more on cleaning up the financial and administrative shenanigans widely blamed on certain Italian-dominated power cliques (from which Scola was excluded). In the last several months, however, he has demonstrated that on issues of faith and morals, especially how the Church explains and applies its teaching in these areas, he is not exactly on the same page as the pope.
That became clear during the recent synod when Cardinal Pell criticized bishops and cardinals for doing exactly one of the things Francis had asked them to do – discuss and propose ways through which the Church might help reach out to alienated Catholics, including the divorced and remarried, cohabitating couples, unwed mothers, gays and others. He was also one of about a dozen cardinals who tried to stop discussion on how to possibly readmit remarried divorcees to communion, an issue the Pope had specially commissioned Cardinal Walter Kasper to help the bishops explore. He wrote the preface to a book that attempts to eviscerate Kasper’s arguments.
Two days after the conclave Cardinal Pell was asked in a video interview if he had yet had a chance to speak the newly elected Pope Francis. “I have already spoken to him and I promised him my complete loyalty,” he said. It’s not clear why he felt he had to underline this since part of the conclave ritual is that all the cardinals individually pledge their allegiance to the new pope in the Sistine Chapel shortly after his election.
It’s even less clear how he estimates Francis 19 months into the pontificate. One gets the impression that he and many other cardinals, whether they voted for him or not, see Francis today as somebody very different from the man they thought was elected in March 2013. “He is doing a marvelous job making the financial reforms,” Cardinal Pell reportedly said last week. Was it meant to be ironic? Because, evidently, it was the highest compliment he paid Francis in a homily last Saturday to a group of Tridentine Mass enthusiasts on pilgrimage to Rome. At least according to a report by Catholic News Service (CNS). A secretary actually read the cardinal’s sermon at a Mass he was supposed to celebrate. But at the last minute he did not show up because of a sudden bout of bronchitis. The full text of his homily was not immediately published, but according to CNS he also wrote, “Pope Francis is the 266th pope and history has seen 37 false or antipopes. The story of the popes is stranger than fiction. We have one of the more unusual popes in history, enjoying almost unprecedented popularity.” He then went to say: “The church is not built on the rock of Peter’s faith, but on Peter himself, despite his faults and failings.”
What is one to make of these utterances? Cardinal Pell apparently sent an accompanying note to the Old Rite group, according to CNS, ensuring them that illness was the only reason he could not attend their Mass. Yet apparently another head of a Roman Curia office, Cardinal Robert Sarah of “Cor Unum”, also cancelled an event with the same group also at the last minute. Did the Pope or his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, express displeasure with the two close papal aides for showing him less than “complete loyalty”?
Cardinal Pell’s remark about the pope’s “marvelous” work in the area of financial reform is, of course, largely self-serving. And it conveniently ignores the areas of reform that Francis, but perhaps not so much the cardinal, sees as much more essential – the development of the Synod of Bishops and the elaboration of “genuine doctrinal authority” for episcopal conferences as an integral part of Church governance; the re-examination of “certain customs”, “rules” and “precepts”; the promotion of “different currents of thought” in theology rather than a “monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuances”; and a “conversion” of the papacy for a better exercise of the “primacy” in a way more faithful to the will of Christ. You can find it all in Evangelii Gaudium.
Pope Francis has not appointed Cardinal Pell to head any office or commission that will deal specifically with these issues. Of course, as a bishop he has a voice in the synod. At least he did in the most recent assembly and will most likely in the next one, too. But his first priority is reorganizing the Vatican’s financial disorder. It’s a challenge that should command his undivided attention.
This article is a taste of what Robert Mickens will be writing from ‘Global Pulse’. He has been a regular commentator on the Vatican. Subscriptions for ‘Global Pulse’ from November 1, will be available shortly.