Cardinal Pell’s Toxic Nightmare

Before his death, Cardinal Pell recognized the fatal flaw in the Synod on Synodality's inclusion paradigm: it will result in a jettisoning of every doctrine and tradition.

Among the gifts left to the Church by the late George Cardinal Pell is a critique of the Synod on Synodality, published posthumously in the Spectator. He says what many, in fact most churchgoing Catholics think: this Synod doesn’t speak for us. The Synodal findings so far are summed up in a 56-page document titled “Working Document for the Continental Stage.” Flip through a few pages and you can see why Cardinal Pell called the whole process a “toxic nightmare.”

The central metaphor of the Working Document is the big tent. It’s taken from Isaiah 54:2: “Enlarge the space of your tent.” Lest you forget the metaphor, a picture of a big tent is drawn on virtually every page in what appears to be crayon. The idea is that a big tent Church has three features: it has plenty of room for lots of new people, it has some sort of structure, and it can move around as needed (§ 27). But structure and mobility won’t matter if our tent is empty, so how are we going to fill all that extra space? It turns out that, as we hear so often these days, diversity is going to be our strength. “Enlarging the tent requires welcoming others into it, making room for their diversity” (§ 28). 

What sort of diversity are we talking about here? Well, it’s not the Maronites or the Chaldeans. They are already included. Cardinal Pell recognized that this is a call to fill the Church with people who are not really Catholics. “With no sense of irony, the document is entitled ‘Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,’ and the aim of doing so is to accommodate, not the newly baptised—those who have answered the call to repent and believe—but anyone who might be interested enough to listen. Participants are urged to be welcoming and radically inclusive: ‘No one is excluded.’”

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This idea for filling the pews will be familiar, Pell wrote, to ex-Anglicans. As a convert from Anglicanism myself, I can tell you that he’s right. I remember it growing up, because I watched it play out in almost every church I attended. We were going to show everyone that they would be accepted at church. No longer would we be gatekeepers! And so we threw open the doors…and no one came. 

And then we started second guessing. Maybe we were gatekeepers after all. Was the music too old-fashioned? Was the language of the liturgy too hard? Were the homilies too serious? Were teachings on suicide or divorce or abortion or homosexuality putting people off? Were we leaving out popular victim groups that we could shoehorn into the faith? 

The mere fact that someone could identify a potential hindrance became a reason to abolish the thing or leave it, to quote Pell, “parked in a pluralist limbo where some choose to redefine sins downwards and most agree to differ respectfully.” Soon the churches of my youth would find they had compromised on so many things that they had changed beyond recognition, except in one respect: they were still empty. 

I privately think of this process as the “The Two-Step Plan.”

Step One: The Church becomes accepting of all so that no one is excluded.

Step Two: The previously excluded flock into the Church.

The big problem with the Working Document is its assertion that we have to follow the Two-Step Plan in the Catholic Church.

The Protestant experience shows the Two-Step Plan failing again and again. Why do people keep trying it? The answer is that once upon a time, it did work. The Two-Step Plan is what grew the early Church.

The first Christians encountered a world where most people thought of gods as tied to families or cities or nations. These gods demanded our best. That meant their worship often excluded slaves, outsiders, cripples, the insane, the cursed, or those who were otherwise unclean. The early Christians didn’t just bring a different faith, they changed the philosophical framework of faith. 

Christians worship the Most High God, the creator of all things. Philosophical pagans like Plato and Aristotle had long ago deduced the existence of this Being. But philosophers realized that the Most High God would not need anything from us. He would be infinitely beyond us. Excellence might bring us to the attention of the gods, but the most excellent man was no closer to God than was the most excellent cockroach. The only way that a connection would arise between such a God and His mortal creation would be if God made the first move.

The Christian good news was that God had bridged the infinite gap between Him and us. Not only that, but he had sent His Son to die for us, not for a privileged few, but for all those who would follow Him. And so you had the Two-Step Plan: the Church was accepting of those previously excluded, and many of the previously excluded were glad to join the Church.

Now we’re trying to repeat that success. Why isn’t it working? 

Again, philosophy can help us understand. We in the Church, at least in the West, are no longer competing with hierarchical and exclusive pagans. We’re competing against an easygoing, inclusive pluralism. 

We’re trying to build a tent big enough to accommodate everybody. But the pluralist says you don’t need to pick a tent. No matter what tent you pick, we all end up at the same place. Come and go between tents as much as you like. Sample Wicca, try astrology, it really doesn’t matter. You don’t even need a tent. You are fine where you are.  We’re trying to build a tent big enough to accommodate everybody. But the pluralist says you don’t need to pick a tent.Tweet This

Now, I think pluralism is a weak position. The pluralist’s version of inclusion is what G. K. Chesterton would call a Christian virtue gone mad. But none of that really matters, because weak and silly as it may be, this view is the one against which the Church is currently struggling. People are drifting off to have no religion at all.

The problem with the Two-Step Plan is that it meets the pluralist where he is strongest: inclusion. But as long as we have even a single tradition or dogma, that very fact will make us less inclusive than the pluralist. Our tent will never be big enough. 

A better plan would be to meet the pluralist where he is weak—for he is weak. Because the pluralist believes in nothing, he has nothing to offer: no answers, no purpose, no order, no meaning, no transcendence, no hope. Our souls cry out for these things.

What the pluralist cannot do is furnish a tent with the Good, the True and the Beautiful. But we can. Our tradition contains these things—beautiful liturgy, profound ideas, rites that really do what they are supposed to do.

Traditional communities, like those of the Traditional Latin Mass, pose a real challenge to the pluralist. It shouldn’t surprise us that they are growing. Those who keep pounding away at the Two-Step Plan pose no challenge at all. That’s why we should feel unsatisfied with the Synod on Synodality. That’s also why courageous voices like Cardinal Pell’s are so very important. 


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