New Year in Rome, normally a quiet time, is when the Vatican slowly emerges from the post-Christmas shutdown. While keeping one eye on the pope’s address to foreign diplomats, many reporters dare to take time off. In January 2023 that was a bad idea.
The passing of Benedict XVI—ninety-five and long ailing—on December 31 was followed by the unexpected death on January 10 of a giant figure of conservative Catholicism, Cardinal George Pell, eighty-one, who had concelebrated Benedict’s funeral just five days earlier. What made this one of the most turbulent months of the past decade was not just these two deaths but what they exposed: the tactics and mindset of a group of conservatives who, smelling the end of the Francis era, are determined to secure its reversal in the next conclave. Yet by playing their hand too hard and too early—confident that a papal transition was imminent—they have been exposed as disloyal and unecclesial.
The first was Benedict’s longstanding private secretary and gatekeeper, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who had a tell-all book ready the moment the pope emeritus left this earth. As thousands were still filing past Benedict’s body in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Italian publishing giant Mondadori was emailing journalists with PDFs of Nient'altro che la verità: La mia vita al fianco di Benedetto XVI (“Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI”), whose last pages even contained details of the pope emeritus’s final hours.
Gänswein’s compendious memoir, compiled with help from the journalist Saverio Gaeta, revealed confidences that Benedict never intended to be made public. Even more damagingly, Gänswein offered a series of anecdotes insinuating that the pope emeritus had reservations about some of the teachings of Francis’s pontificate. The claims were selected to inflame conservatives against the pope, for whom Gänswein—still technically Prefect of the Papal Household, and anyway a curial employee—still worked.
This jaw-dropping double disloyalty threw a shadow over Benedict’s simple, sober funeral on January 5. Privately, curial officials (I spoke to two) were stunned. Publicly Gänswein was censured by cardinals from Vienna (Christoph Schönborn called it an “unseemly indiscretion”) to Caracas (Baltazar Porras told Religión Digital that Gänswein had been unfaithful both to Benedict and—by weaponizing legitimate differences between the two popes in order to harm Francis—to the Church).
Then came the news that Pell, the former Archbishop of Sydney, had died suddenly of heart failure following hip surgery at Salvator Mundi hospital. As the news sank in, Pell gave a blast from beyond the grave: the Spectator rushed out an article he had written deploring the current synod as a “toxic nightmare” and “neo-Marxist.” Although Pell had hardly been reticent in his criticisms of previous synods, Damian Thompson, a polemical traditionalist at the UK conservative weekly, claimed it was a characteristically courageous act by Pell, who knew he would face “the fury of Pope Francis” when the piece was published.
Yet that same day Pell was shown to have been anything but courageous. His death had freed the blogger Sandro Magister to reveal that the cardinal was the author of the anonymous “Demos” memo he had published in March of last year. That rambling diatribe, packed with conservative talking points, many of them bizarre, had begun by claiming that “commentators of every school” saw the Francis pontificate as a “disaster” and a “catastrophe,” before spelling out a nine-point case for a restoration of the status quo ante.
Yet in the midst of all this, Francis—far from furious—praised Pell to the dean of the college of cardinals, Giovanni Battista Re, as a “committed witness to the Gospel and Church” who had led Vatican financial reform with “determination and wisdom” and “unwaveringly followed his Lord with perseverance even in the hour of trial.” The pope gave the final blessing at Pell’s funeral on January 14, and later told the Associated Press that the cardinal had the human right to criticize him, adding: “He was a great guy. Great.”
But Pell’s behavior was a second shock to Roman sensibilities. Just as Gänswein had betrayed the curial code of confidentiality and loyalty, Pell had cast aside his cardinal’s vow of loyalty to the pope. Among those who had admired Pell for his directness if not his dogmatism, it was hard to compute. He had enjoyed Francis’s trust as his finance head but also as a member of his nine-member cabinet of cardinals tasked with reforming the Vatican, at whose meetings over many years all could speak freely.
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