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Cardinal Pell authored ‘secret memo’ ripping current pontificate [News analysis]

January 12, 2023

Australian Cardinal George Pell, who died unexpectedly this week, has been identified as the author of a controversial memo that circulated among Church leaders in Rome early in 2022, describing the pontificate of Pope Francis as “a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe.”

Veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, who posted the memo last March, has revealed that Cardinal Pell was the writer who signed the document as “Demos.”

Dated “Lent 2022,” and running to nearly 2,000 words, the document is divided into two sections: a first entitled “The Vatican Today” and the second looking forward to “The Next Conclave.” In it, Demos portrays a Church in crisis and calls for the election of a new Pontiff who will restore order and orthodoxy.

The Vatican Today

In a sweeping indictment of the Pope’s leadership, the memo charges that Pope Francis has become a source of confusion for the universal Church. Demos/Pell notes that German prelates (among others) have adopted positions clearly at odds with Church teaching, while Rome is silent. This silence, he adds, is “emphasized when contrasted with the active persecution of the Traditionalists and the contemplative convents.”

“The Christo-centricity of teaching is being weakened,” the secret memo continues. “The Christo-centric legacy of St. John Paul II in faith and morals is under systematic attack.” The memo cites the “idolatrous” episode of the Pachamama, the attacks on contemplative religious orders, and the re-orientation of the Pontifical Academy for Life as examples of a radically different approach.

Next Demos—who, we now know, is the prelate who headed a bid to regularize Vatican financial affairs—warns that a “lack of respect for the law in the Vatican risks becoming an international scandal.” He criticizes Pope Francis for repeatedly intervening in the trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, and for summarily dismissing curial officials. It is noteworthy, here, that Cardinal Pell says that Cardinal Becciu “did not receive due process”—although Becciu had been his nemesis at the Vatican: the main obstacle to Pell’s efforts at reform.

“The financial situation of the Vatican is grave,” continues the former head of the Secretariat for the Economy. He points to the annual deficits, the underfunded pension account, and the scandalous losses on real-estate investments. Demos points out that Pope Francis first supported financial reforms, then supported Becciu, then switched again to dismiss Becciu and authorize his prosecution.

Cardinal Pell charges that Pope Francis has “negligible” influence in the political world, and decries his failure to support loyal Chinese Catholics, as well as the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine.

“These issues should be revisited by the next Pope,” Demos writes as he concludes the first section of his memo.

The Next Conclave

In the second section of the memo, clearly designed to influence the thinking of cardinals who will elect the next Pontiff, Demos writes:

The first tasks of the new pope will be to restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the law and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition.

The memo argues that Catholic leaders “often underestimated the hostile power of secularization,” and points to a grave decline in the number of Catholics and the regularity with which they practice their faith. Demos observes sardonically: “There is a new spring in the step of the Protestant liberals in the Catholic Church.” He insists again the Pope—at least a future Pope—must end confusion in doctrine by correcting the doctrinal deviations of the German hierarchy.

Cardinal Pell clearly does not see the current workings of the Synod of Bishops as a solution to the dangers he cites. He predicts that synod meetings “will consume much time and money, probably distracting energy from evangelization and service rather than deepening these essential activities.”

Not surprisingly, given his identity, Demos says that “a lot of work is needed on the financial reforms in the Vatican.” However he says that the financial reform “should not be the most important criterion in the selection of the next Pope.” Financial procedures are important, he writes, “but they are much less important than the spiritual and doctrinal threats facing the Church, especially in the First World.”


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  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jan. 17, 2023 12:22 PM ET USA

    Cardinal Pell was a giant in a land of lilliputians. The good die young and the wicked seem to last forever. Next man up!

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jan. 12, 2023 7:24 PM ET USA

    Sadly, I have to totally agree with the description of the pontificate of Pope Francis as "a disaster in many or more respects; a catastrophe."

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jan. 12, 2023 2:15 PM ET USA

    I'm feeling both elation and sadness with this news. As Phil has pointed out elsewhere, it's nice to know that Pell was "plain spoken" and a force for sanity and orthodoxy in the Catholic Church. He and Muller together have kept the light shining. So...who will step up to plate in his place? We have several prospects in our country, but as Christ himself said, you cannot be a prophet in your homeland. Let's hope pressure of the Pell sort continues worldwide.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jan. 12, 2023 12:11 PM ET USA

    God bless dear Cardinal Pell, and may more senior churchmen follow his example of wisdom and courage.