Cardinal Pell on the Synod, the Final Report, and Decentralization

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell (photo: Aciprensa)

Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, sat down with the Register Oct. 25 to share his reflections on the Synod on the Family.

In this characteristically frank interview, he discussed the quality of the final report, criticisms over ambiguous language in the passage relating to divorce and remarriage, the influence of the Pope's 45 personally appointed delegates, and what the Holy Father's recent comments on synodality and decentralization might mean for the Church.

Your Eminence, what was your overall assessment of the synod?

I’ve been to seven synods, I think this was certainly the most interesting and also was very hard work. I think the final document is immensely better than the instrumentum laboris, in every way. It’s elegantly written, it’s more clearly structured, the level of argumentation is not embarrassingly low, and it’s a consensus document. There was massive consensus on 92 of the 94 paragraphs and there is nothing in the set of paragraphs that is heretical or opposed to current Church practice.

Paragraphs 84-86 on divorce and remarriage only just got enough votes and have drawn criticism for being ambiguous. Is this a problem?

No it’s not ambiguous, it’s insufficient. There’s really no ambiguity in the text. If you closely examine the text in 85, it’s very clear. The basis for all the discernment must be the “insegnamento complessivo”* – complete teaching – of John Paul II. Then it goes on to repeat that the basis of discernment is the teaching of the Church.

A lot of the fathers would have liked it spelled out a bit more explicitly but there is no mention anywhere of Communion for the divorced and remarried. It’s not one of the possibilities that was floated. The document is cleverly written to get consensus. Some people would say it’s insufficient. It’s not ambiguous.

The headlines in some Italian newspapers, and an Irish website, implied the Church was now allowing all remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion on a case-by-case basis. What’s your view of this?

That is completely unjustified. There is nothing in the document to justify that, and the Polish bishops came out today I believe to say very explicitly that such an understanding is not justified by the text. Now you might like the text or dislike it. You might think it’s good, bad or indifferent, but at least let us read it accurately and justly, and judge it on its own terms. So those headlines are inaccurate and misleading. They’ve probably been fed a line. I’m not sure there was or is an official English text so there’s some excuse for them misunderstanding it, but such headlines are not justified. People should go to those paragraphs and judge for themselves.

Some were critical that Familiaris consortio was cherry picked, and its clear position on not admitting remarried divorcees omitted, thereby diminishing the integrity of the apostolic letter. How do you respond to that?

Well the full text is not quoted, but they did add the word “complessivo” – it’s the entire teaching of John Paul II which is the basis, not the incomplete citation that was given.

What’s your view on other parts of the document, such as the fact that the same-sex issue that was left off?

It wasn’t left off, it was emphatically rejected that there was any comparison between homosexual marriage and same-sex unions. There was explicit rejection of the theory of graduality of the law. There’s a reaffirmation of the teaching of Humanae Vitae, there’s an adequate presentation of the teaching on conscience. All these things are significant reinforcements of the present doctrine of the Church.

What do you hope the Holy Father will do with this report. Do you think there will be a post-synodal apostolic exhortation?

I don’t know. That would be a normal expectation but we don’t know.

Do you think that more clarity is needed, if not now then after the Jubilee Year of Mercy perhaps?

I don’t know — the Holy Father’s business is his business. What we do want, and this is one of the great benefits of the papacy, is not to have years of struggle as there was in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of women. There will be another synod, another theme, so it’ll be good to move on from this. [It’s] quite clear that the synod has not broken with essential Catholic tradition in either doctrine or practice.

At last year’s synod, there was manipulation and clearly an agenda being pushed. Are you more content with what has happened at this year’s meeting?

Yes, we voted paragraph by paragraph and, in most ways, the document did represent what was discussed in the groups whereas the interim relatio last time bore little relationship with the discussion in most groups. The Holy Father said there would be no manipulation and so we were substantially reassured on that.

You had this year 45 papal-appointed delegates who appeared to swing the vote. It’s said those controversial paragraphs on divorce and remarriage probably wouldn’t have passed without those papal appointees.

That’s very possible.

Do you think that’s a problem?

It’s a fact.

There was initial criticism of the composition of the drafting committee of the final report and the experts who were also drafting the document being supporters of that agenda. Did that turn out to be a problem?

The final text is elegantly written, well structured, understated in some essential regards but 92 out of the 94 paragraphs showed there was massive consensus.

Quite a few in the media were unhappy with the way the synod was spun to the press by the Holy See. Was that something you discussed among yourselves as a matter of concern?

It was better than the previous time because at least about every second day, there was somebody from the center or right of center.

Regarding the Pope’s speech last Saturday on synodality, what is your opinion of that and his comments about decentralization? How will that proceed?

The two terms [synodality and decentralizations] are not really compatible because the Synod of Bishops has got people coming from the peripheries, near and far, to the center, and that’s a wonderful example of Catholic life. Catholicos, a Greek word, means universal, it doesn’t mean continental or regional. Synodality – I’m not quite sure what it means when it’s applied to the whole of Church life as distinct from the existence of a synod like this. But these things are to be the activities that are to continue to flow along. There are questions to be resolved and explained, and to get beyond the title or the affirmation and work out just what it means. The Catholic Church has been going for 2,000 years so there are established patterns and they don’t work too badly. That’s not to say we couldn’t improve.

Are you concerned that the Anglican model might creep in, weakening Church authority?

No because we’ve got the papacy and we’ve got a Holy Father who’s quite capable of making decisions for himself.  


* the text actually says "criterio complessivo" - complete criteria. Cardinal Pell mistakenly recalled it as being "insegnamento complessivo".