Australia’s top Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, criticized outgoing Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, describing his historic resignation as destabilizing and questioning his governance skills.
Pell, Australia’s representative at next month’s secret conclave to elect a successor, said Benedict was a “brilliant teacher” but “government wasn’t his strong point” in a candid interview on the eve of the pope’s departure.
“I think I prefer somebody who can lead the Church and pull it together a bit,” Pell told commercial television.
He also said the 85-year-old pontiff’s decision to resign—the first pope to do so since the Middle Ages—set a worrying precedent for the Church.
“People who, for example, might disagree with a future pope, will mount a campaign to get him to resign,” suggested Pell, 71.
In a later radio interview he pointed to the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal, in which Benedict’s butler leaked secret papal memos revealing intrigues between rival groups of cardinals, when questioned about his governance views.
“I think the governance is done by most of the people around the Pope and that wasn’t always done brilliantly,” Pell said.
“Probably a change of procedures would have made it more difficult but it’s very easy to be wise after the event. It was totally unprecedented,” he added of Vatileaks.
Pell said the German pontiff, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, had been “well aware” that his resignation had been a “break with tradition” and was “slightly destabilizing.”
Neil Ormerod, a professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University said he was not aware of a senior cleric making such outspoken criticisms of a sitting pope and the Holy See in the past, but said it was no bad thing.
“I don’t think it’s a worrying precedent, I think it would be nice to have more open discussion about some of these matters in the Church,” Ormerod told AFP.
“I hope this opens up the Church to criticizing other Church hierarchs and their management styles. If we’re going to open up the pope to such criticism then we should open it up to other people as well.”
Ormerod backed Pell as “within his rights” to debate papal attributes in the lead-up to the conclave, but disagreed that the precedent of resignation would be open to abuse, arguing that the current system was equally corruptible.
“We certainly can’t say that in the final years of [Benedict’s predecessor] John Paul II’s life that he was a strong administrator either,” he said.
“That’s actually, I think, a good argument for resignation. You’ve got to ask yourself who is really in control in such circumstances?”
“We don’t want to get into a situation where there’s a pope with senile dementia, and it’s quite on the cards that this could happen at this stage.”
Asked what he would be seeking in the next pope, Pell said he wanted somebody “who’ll maintain the tradition, both in faith and especially in morals, where it’s under attack.”
“I want somebody who is able to speak to the world,” he said.
“And also I would like somebody with strong pastoral experience in a diocese who is able to lift the morale of the Roman Curia, and perhaps provide a bit more discipline.”
Benedict bid an emotional farewell Wednesday to some 150,000 pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, speaking of the “stormy waters” of multiple scandals and Vatican infighting that have plagued his tenure.
The scourge of pedophile priests and cover-ups by their superiors cast a dark shadow over Benedict’s papacy, combined with a longstanding money-laundering scandal at the Vatican bank and the Vatileaks controversy.