Cardinal Pell was a controversial figure: convicted and then acquitted in Australia of abusing minors, he was also under fire for protecting other abusers. He is of interest to us here because he became a discussion topic at the publication of the 'Synod: Document for the Continental Phase' which he attacked just before his sudden death.
In a very critical text talking about this document, he called on the Catholic Church to "free itself from this toxic nightmare". What Cardinal Pell calls a 'toxic nightmare' is the 'Synod of Synodality', which is not only 'couched in neo-Marxist jargon' – in the Cardinal’s words -, but it is 'hostile to the apostolic tradition', as it 'ignores such fundamental Christian tenets as belief in divine judgment, heaven and hell'.
The cardinal "did not know that he was about to die when he wrote this piece.” Actually, “his sudden death may add extra force to his words when the synod meets this October.” This statement by the English publication The Spectator reveals a clear intention of making Cardinal Pell an instrument of criticism against the Synod process and the Church's journey.
Indeed, Nico Spuntoni writes in Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper always critical of Pope Francis’ open and democratic line that the Synod on synodality aims to empower: "Is the death of Cardinal Pell preparing a 'new' Bergoglio?" "The Australian cardinal was the real conservatives’ leader. Without him, the possibility of a future conclave under the banner of continuity with the current pontificate becomes more and more concrete.
"Priests, nuns, religious, seminarians, families. There were many in St Peter's Basilica" for the final farewell to Cardinal George Pell. The sudden death of the Australian cardinal, which occurred after a cardiac arrest following a routine operation, left his many admirers in shock and "had the effect of making evident the important weight Pell had taken on in a significant part of the Church. That Church that is uneasy about some opening processes’ and the speed they have in this pontificate.”’’
Also participating in the ceremony were "several cardinals created by Pope Francis, but subsequently removed by him from their positions in the Curia. Although with different motivations, some of these cardinals are opposing the orientations and decisions of the current pontificate with greater resistance. An intolerance that has become topical again in recent weeks after Benedict XVI’ death and above all after Monsignor Georg Gänswein’s revelations, Benedict’s private secretary, about his misunderstandings with Francis. The German archbishop was also in the basilica, a few metres away from the Pope who celebrated the rite" at Benedict XVI's funeral.
On the other hand, in the personality of Cardinal Pell, who was convicted and then acquitted for abuse of minors and for having, it is said, protected other abusers, people would like to see a link between a certain conception of the Church’s organisation and even a certain construction of Catholic dogma that favours the clergy’s power and the development of these abuses, both power and sexual abuses, that clericalism engenders.
But what exactly are the weaknesses of this "45-page booklet - Synod: Publication of the Document for the Continental Phase - for Cardinal Pell to define it as "one of the most incoherent documents ever sent by Rome"?
To begin with, according to the Cardinal, "With no sense of irony, the document is entitled Enlarge the Space of Your Tent, and the aim of doing so is to accommodate, not the newly baptized - those who have answered the call to repent and believe - but anyone who might be interested enough to listen.
"What is one to make of this potpourri, this outpouring of New Age good will?
The document does not urge even the Catholic participants to make disciples of all nations (Mth 28:16-20), much less to preach the Saviour in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2)” when "the first task for everyone and especially the teachers, is to listen in the Spirit.” On the contrary, the Cardinal charges, the "recent update of the good news" is "synodality as a way of being for the Church" which through radical inclusion demands a participatory style that practices "co-responsibility with other believers and people of good will."
From this - correctly or incorrectly - Cardinal Pell concludes that according to the document and the synodal spirit, "The people of God need new strategies; not quarrels and clashes but dialogue, where the distinction between believers and unbelievers is rejected. The people of God must really actually listen, it insists, to the cry of the poor and of the earth. Because of differences of opinion on abortion, contraception, the ordination of women to the priesthood and homosexual activity, some felt that no definitive positions on these issues can be established or proposed. The same is true of polygamy, divorce and remarriage.
Does this mean, for example, that the Anglican Church is in decadence because it has allowed the ordination of women and has opened itself up to welcoming homosexuality? Whenever we refer - as Cardinal Pell does - to the tradition of the Church, should we not on the contrary question ourselves historically and confront these traditions with the spirit of the Gospel?
To appreciate the true scope of Cardinal Pell's criticisms, we must question what this document entitled "Enlarge the Space of Your Tent", published on 24 October 2022 by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, actually claims.
In the introduction, it is stated that "the Secretariat of the Synod has received the summaries of responses from 112 of the 114 Bishops' Conferences and all 15 Eastern Churches.” The Synod therefore will continue with a continental stage that will culminate in the celebration of synodal meetings held by continent, between January and March 2023, convened to re-examine the path taken, to continue listening and discerning from this Document for the Continental Stage according to the socio-cultural specificities of each Church.
It is specified: "It is not a conclusive document, because the process is far from over; it is not a document of the Magisterium of the Church, nor the report of a sociological survey; it does not offer the formulation of operational indications, goals and objectives, nor the complete elaboration of a theological vision." Nevertheless, it remains a theological document because it expresses the sensus fidei of God’s People and "it is oriented to the service of the Church's mission: to proclaim Christ who died and rose for the salvation of the world."
The document is articulated in four parts of unequal length.
1-. The experience of the synodal process. In short, it is the "account of the synodality experience lived in the light of faith, thanks to the consultation of the people of God in the local Churches and the discernment of the pastors in the Episcopal Conferences."
2-. Listening to the Scriptures. The biblical icon is presented, which offers "a key to interpreting the contents" of the document, that is the tent image described in Isaiah.
3-. Towards a synodal missionary Church. The key words of the synodal journey are proposed: listening as openness; impetus towards mission; commitment to mission; building through liturgy.
4-. Next steps. Some next steps are mentioned, one of which is "the long-term horizon, calling for personal conversion and the reform of the Church" and the other "the appointments of the continental stage".
The document is therefore first and foremost an account of the first stage discussions on listening and discernment, held in many parts of the world. Refusing to listen to the Church is basically refusing the sensus fidei of the People of God, which over the centuries has been the faith experience leading the Church to formulate the basic contents of its faith, from Christ’s divinity to the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. To deny the sensus fidei of the People of God would be tantamount to saying Gospel, nothing but the Gospel, while basically denying the whole teaching of Pope Benedict, built on the intelligence of faith from one Church’s experience, that of the Greek-Western culture.