Holy Smoke

‘I don’t think we’ve gained anything’ – Cardinal Pell on the Vatican and China

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Damian Thompson

Cardinal George Pell has given a wide-ranging interview to The Spectator's Holy Smoke podcast in which he criticises the Vatican's 2018 deal with Beijing and especially the secrecy surrounding it. 

The unpublished pact allows the Chinese Communist Party to choose Catholic bishops, whose appointments are then rubber-stamped by Pope Francis. 'I know high-up people in the Vatican are very dissatisfied with the way things are going,' says Pell, the former Vatican Prefect for the Economy.

'The agreement is there to try to get a bit of space for the Catholics. Obviously that's praiseworthy. [But] I don't think we've gained anything. The persecutions seem to be continuing. In some places they've got worse.' Nobody 'outside a small circle' knows the details of the agreement, 'which seems to me to be quite irregular.'

The cardinal was imprisoned in his native Australia on trumped-up sex charges before being acquitted by the country's High Court. It is widely believed that his enemies in the Vatican played a part in framing him. In the interview, Pell doesn't discuss his own ordeal – but he does express concern at the lack of transparency in the ongoing Vatican trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the Pope's former chief of staff, and his associates, who are accused of committing large-sale fraud.

While affirming his loyalty to Pope Francis, Pell also makes clear his unhappiness with the sudden move last year to restrict celebrations of the traditional Latin Mass. 'I think it was a most unfortunate decision and I think a bit inexplicable, too,' he says. But he advises traditionalists to keep calm, because there are signs that the very hard line taken by the Vatican's liturgy chief, the Yorkshire-born Archbishop Arthur Roche, is now being reconsidered.

Last month, Pope Francis told the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP) that it could continue celebrating Mass and other sacraments using the old Missal, granting them a greater degree of freedom than Roche favoured. Cardinal Pell says 'the working presumption' should be that the clarified rights of the FSSP also extend to other traditionalist priestly fraternities, such as the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP).