Cardinal Muller departs the CDF: What does it mean?

by Michael Sean Winters

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My colleague Josh McElwee reports this morning on the decision by Pope Francis not to reconfirm Cardinal Gerhard Muller for a second five-year term as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Holy Father has selected the longtime #2 at the congregation, Archbishop Luis Francisco Ledaria Ferrer, S.J. to move up to the top spot.

The fact that Cardinal Muller was sacked should not come as a surprise. Conservatives within the curia and more progressive types beyond have both long complained that the man, though very gifted intellectually, could not organize a one man parade. He couldn't run the office. This had become increasingly apparent in the CDF's continued wrong notes on the subject of clergy sex abuse. Those who see this as an ideological purge on account of Muller's increasingly confused position on Amoris Laetitia haven't been paying attention. And, it is more than a little ironic that the same arch-conservatives who are floating the narrative that Muller has been sacked because he stood athwart Francis' supposedly heterodox agenda were the same people griping about Muller when he was appointed. (See, for example, here and here.) Then, the objection was that Muller was too sympathetic with liberation theology. Now he is the paragon of orthodoxy. These lay faithful who think they embody the papal magisterium are not exactly consistent. 

The second principal takeaway is that Pope Francis is completely unafraid to do what is best for the Church. Earlier this week, the Australian authorities brought charges against another high ranking Vatican official, Cardinal George Pell, who was put on a temporary leave of absence to return to his native country and have his day in court. The official statement from the Vatican was deeply ambivalent. Some leaders might think twice before removing a second high ranking official, worried that it would suggest a chaotic situation. Not Francis. He is not someone who cares how things appear so much as how things are. Indeed, this may be the most challenging part of the reform of the curia, getting an organization designed to promote those who work there to remember that its job it to help the pope govern the universal church. Concern with how things look is characteristic of the courtier mentality of years past, not the missionary mentality to which the Second Vatican Council and ALL subsequent popes have called the Church. 

Third, by hiring from within, Pope Francis has shown he is not declaring war on the congregation and its staff. If he had wanted to do that, he could have brought in someone from outside, such as Argentine Archbishop Victor Fernandez. Or, he could have selected someone who worked at the CDF, but a long time ago, like Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, now the Archbishop of Vienna. I thought he might tap former CDF official and now Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna. By promoting Archbishop Ladaria, Francis is indicating that he needs a change in management not a change in overall structure or constitution. 

I have not been able to confirm Andrea Tornielli's report that Pope Francis offered Muller a different curial post and that Muller declined, saying such a post was "beneath his dignity." If this is true, it is outrageous. Curial officials serve at the pleasure of the pope. Their entire job is to help him. Cardinals take a special vow of obedience to the Holy Father. They pledge to support Jesus and His vicar even to the shedding of their blood, hence their red robes. Does Muller think his blood is less costly than his pride? I know this: If Pope Francis called Cardinal Sean O'Malley and told him he wanted him to go back to being the Bishop of the Virgin Islands or director of the Centro Catolico in Washington, O'Malley would be thrilled. I hope Cardinal Muller finds a job in which he can learn to cultivate the virtue of humility.

The right wing is already offering histrionic and hysterical interpretations about what this morning's announcement means. My favorite so far comes from LifeSiteNews' John-Henry Westen which shows just how elaborate the conspiracy theories are. You can google the rest. 

There is enormous continuity in the life of the Church. For all the flashy headlines about Pope Francis making changes, and he is making changes, the people to whom he entrusts the work were largely selected for positions of responsibility by Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II. The idea that a prefect of the CDF is entitled to keep the job for life died this morning and good riddance to it. But, the new prefect is a man chosen by Pope Benedict four years before the selection of Muller. That said, I hope Cardinal Robert Sarah read this morning's Bollettino with care. Ditto for Cardinal Marc Ouellet. They need to make sure their dicasteries are not loci of obstruction to the Holy Father but function as intended, as adjuncts to his office. Pope Francis has gone out of his way to work with the team he inherited, but if they are found wanting, it is time to let them go.


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