New Book: Cardinal Pell’s Main Concern About the Synod on Synodality Was Its Attack on Divine Revelation

Father Robert Sirico discusses 'Pell Contra Mundum,' for which he served as editor.

New book edited by Father Sirico available through Connor Court Publishing, Australia.
New book edited by Father Sirico available through Connor Court Publishing, Australia. (photo: Courtesy photo / Connor Court Publishing)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal George Pell was “prescient” in identifying “all the key issues” about the current Synod on Synodality, but what troubled him most was “the attack on divine Revelation” with the resulting possibility that development of doctrine would have no safeguards, Father Robert Sirico has said.

The co-founder and president emeritus of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty said the late Australian cardinal was not just concerned about “the disregard for the tradition of the Church,” but the consequences of obscuring divine revelation at the synod so that “the Holy Spirit can tell you something in the first century and tell you the opposite in the second, in the third, or the 21st century.” 

Father Sirico has edited the new book Pell Contra Mundum (Connor Court Publishing, Australia), a tribute to the Australian cardinal who died in January, and published to coincide with the October assembly currently taking place in the Vatican. 

In this Oct. 11 interview with the Register, Father Sirico explains his motives for compiling the book and what the cardinal would make of the synod so far. He also pays tribute to Pell’s strength of character that won him the respect of the Pope and other cardinals. 

Father Robert Sirico
Father Robert Sirico(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Father Sirico, what were your motives for publishing this book on Cardinal Pell?

It really grew out of the sadness, the grief of Cardinal Pell’s death. I was with him the night of Pope Benedict’s funeral. We had dinner in his apartment. Cardinal Zen was there and a few other people, not many, but a few other people. I’d known Cardinal Pell for more than 25 years, and over these last few months we’d been talking about the Synod and things happening in the Church. And so I planned to see him again, obviously. We knew he was going in for the surgery. I left Rome, I had to go to Phoenix for a speech, and then that morning got up to the call that he had died in the hospital. So there was grief, but then I just went over in my head the kinds of things we had been talking about. And that day, too, as I recall, maybe later that day or the next day, the piece in the London Spectator came out.


The piece on his concerns about the Synod on Synodality?

Yes [the article was titled The Catholic Church Must Free Itself From This Toxic Nightmare]. So as I began to think about it, and then I was asked to give a tribute to him, it was probably later that month or in February, I had to put together some thoughts. And that’s when the idea for this book began to emerge, particularly as I compared him to Cardinal [John Henry] Newman. It was said Cardinal Newman was the silent voice of the Second Vatican Council because he was a reference point so often, and I thought Pell might become a reference point at the Synod. As you look at what he wrote in that London Spectator piece, and what has emerged now, it was prescient: He identified all the key issues, most particularly divine revelation, and the obscuring of what we mean by that, and the development of doctrine. So that just presented itself to me as the concept for the book.


So the book is not just a tribute to the cardinal but also timed to coincide with the Synod on Synodality?

Yes, most emphatically, it was timed for that. It was sent to every cardinal prior to its open release, and now it’s available everywhere. It’s in four languages, the principal languages. 

I wanted to bring Pell’s concerns to the public, and to do that, we had Cardinal [Oswald] Gracias [of Bombay] who worked with Pell in the Council of Cardinals, George Weigel, who had written so much both in defense of Pell when he was in prison, and then after Pell’s death. Danny Casey, who worked with Pell in the Secretariat for the Economy. I think that one article gives, just in one place, the entirety of what he was doing with that, and then how it was interrupted, with first the interruption of the audit, and then the accusations from Australia, for which he was vindicated, which Cardinal Gracias makes clear and calls him a white martyr.


You say the jewel of the book is that he encouraged his Catholic liberal arts students to ignore “woke society taunts,” to not be afraid to learn and to preserve the Western tradition, to inculcate a love and pride of our tradition, just as we love our families while recognizing their failures. Would you say that summed up his concerns for society today? 

Oh, exactly. He lamented the inability of people to think outside of narrow categories and not really have a respectful dialogue with people who are different. And his contribution to that, the way he would always say it, or infer it, that his contribution to plurality was to be a true Catholic. That’s a unique contribution these days.


Also as the title of the book suggests, he was willing to be very countercultural.

Yes. Of course, that phrase was used in reference to St. Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea, and remember, he was the odd man out at the Council of Nicaea. He was exiled how many times? And yet his vision ultimately prevailed in the Church, thanks to the laity, largely. So I just thought, as I was writing my essay in the book and compiling it, it just became apparent to me that Pell was both another Athanasius and another Newman.


But you say that, on the other hand, he was “surprisingly optimistic.”

He was. Optimism is a matter of how you look at things, and that can be very subjective, but I think that he was hopeful, because he had confidence in the Church, confidence in the promise that Christ gave to the Church. And I think anyone who studies history can take great solace in this moment, because this is not the lowest point in history that we’ve ever been to. It is a very challenging, and I think a very significant and dangerous moment, but there are a lot of things that have been worse in the history of the Church.

But the synod and the current situation to this pontificate was of great concern to him?

It was, and I think not just because of the disregard for the tradition of the Church, but more fundamentally, and I think this is what Pell emphasized in his last writings and his thoughts, was that it wasn’t this or that or the other moral issue, but it was the attack on divine revelation. Because if you get rid of that, if you can obscure that, if you can say that anything can become anything, if you don’t have any safeguards on what the development of a doctrine is, then the Holy Spirit can tell you something in the first century and tell you the opposite in the second, in the third, or the 21st century. And his point, which I think was Newman’s point, is that you have to identify what an authentic development is and what a corruption is. Newman’s point was that the development of doctrine is the making explicit what was implicit, not contradicting what was implicit.


Many people have told me that Cardinal Pell is missed, especially at the Synod, as he had a strong voice — that there’s no one present to thump on the table and say stop the manipulation, as happened during the Synod on the Family.

Right. I’m just trying to imagine what he would do in this circumstance. I know that he was a forbidding figure from afar. He was intimidating, a big man, and he had that very serious look. But he was very congenial and kind and generous and accessible, and I feel that I owed him a debt, and that this [book] is an attempt to pay that debt.