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An Interview with Cardinal Pell
Polish Episcopate moved discussion beyond world of theory and theology

An Interview with Cardinal Pell

Cardinal George Pell (b 1941) was educated at the Pontifical Urban University and Oxford University, where he earned the doctorate in history after being ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Balarat. After extensive pastoral work in his native Australia, he was named auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, and later Archbishop of Melbourne, before being appointed Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. Created cardinal by Pope St John Paul II in 2003, he was called to Rome by Pope Francis in 2014 to serve as the first Prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, in which post he has overseen the reform of Vatican finance.

His answers to questions posed by Letters from the Synod follow.

Your Eminence, you’ve been attending synods for decades. How does Synod-2015 differ from its predecessors?

It differs in several ways, and some of them are both quite innovative and quite good.

I vividly remember the 1990 Synod on the priesthood and priestly formation (which eventually gave the Church Pastores Dabo Vobis), where there was much talk in the press about celibacy, not least because many of the press covering that synod were laicised priests. One Synod father said to me, “If the next Synod is on agricultural science, most of the discussion, at least as reported, will have been on clerical celibacy.”  

This Synod is what you might call a bit more spicy. It’s unlike the 2008 Synod on the Word of God, where there was widespread agreement from the beginning and a ringing affirmation of the teaching of Dei Verbum [Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] on the centrality of Scripture in Catholic life.

There’s a good atmosphere this time, although there are still significant differences on whether the Church is authorised to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. The indissolubility of marriage has been massively endorsed. And when it comes down to it, I don’t think too many Synod fathers are going to want to be on the other side from Jesus on indissolubility or on the other side from St Paul on the conditions for worthily receiving Holy Communion.

You’ve expressed concern that the Holy Father’s views are being misrepresented by some who actually have no idea what his views are. Would you amplify that a bit?

The Western press in general presents Pope Francis through a particular prism that tends to filter out important elements of his message. The Holy Father talks frequently about spiritual struggle, as a devoted follower of St Ignatius Loyola would do. He has spoken more about Satan than any pope in living memory. He has clearly condemned abortion on many occasions, and he has said that the “door is closed” to the ordination of women to the priesthood. But because it’s difficult for a lot of the media to reconcile all of this with the image they’ve created of the Pope as a non-judgmental social reformer, these essential parts of his message tend to disappear.

The Pope wants to put Christ and friendship with him at the center of the Church. The Pope is calling the Church to be a Church that offers the world conversion, and the gift of faith, so that the world can know God’s mercy. He’s very keen on open discussion, the aim of which is to help us discern what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church today. These are all central themes in the pontificate.

But to say that any of this amounts to a desire on the Pope’s part to change the doctrine on the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and civilly remarried is many steps too far.

Who among the Synod fathers seem to you to be driving the discussion, and why?

Cardinal Peter Erdő’s opening relatio was an outstanding exposition of the authentic Catholic tradition on chastity, marriage, and the family. It was both sensitive and merciful in addressing the confusions of the age; he usefully distinguished between short-term mercy and long-term mercy, the latter being what actually heals wounded souls. And he made it entirely clear that the Church’s practice of not admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion is not a penalty for the failures of the first marriage, but the Church’s recognition of the consequences of the second marriage.

The interventions by Archbishop Charles Chaput and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo have been very fine. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra was, as always, impressively clear. Cardinal Robert Sarah’s intervention, in which he spoke of the two beasts of the apocalypse, was striking. And I confess I found Cardinal Kasper a bit disappointing. The announcement that the entire Polish episcopate was strongly committed to the defense of the Church’s tradition on sexuality, marriage, and family moved the discussion beyond the world of theory and theology. The position of the African bishops and of the bishops from the formerly communist countries in Europe should be reassuring to the Catholic world.

Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin, the relator of the German-language discussion group, made a substantial contribution to the general discussion with his reports, but these failed to engage systematically with the hard teachings of Christ on the most contentious issues.

What do you anticipate from Synod-2015’s third and final week?

We want brief and clear teaching on the nature of marriage, Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and the location of teaching authority in the Church, so that any confusion that may have arisen on these points is dissipated, and it’s made clear to the world that Christ’s teaching, and the Church’s teaching, on marriage and sexuality are intact. At the same time, we are seeking new ways to reach out with that teaching in a world in which a lot of people are suffering, and in which marriage and the family are under attack and in some places dissolving. A list of best-practice, pastoral examples from around the world of helps to family living would be useful.

I welcome the public commitment of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri [the Synod’s general secretary] to a paragraph-by-paragraph vote on the draft Synod final document, which will help us achieve that clarity, just as I welcome the drafting committee’s assurance that they will take full account of the Synod fathers’ views in preparing that draft.  

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