Pope Francis declined to renew the appointment of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, on the very day—July 2, 2017—on which his five-year term came to an end. It is a gesture unprecedented in the Church’s recent history. In the last sixty years, prefects of the Church’s most important congregation (it has been called La Suprema) have retired due to age or health reasons, or have been called, in the case of Joseph Ratzinger, to become the pope. After a few reflections, I will examine the reason for this strange act.
Though absolutely licit, the pope’s act may be considered a show of bad manners. Ordinarily, when a Church official comes to the end of his appointment before the normal age of retirement (Müller is only seventy years old), either his appointment is renewed, or he is given a brief extension—six months, a year—before being replaced. The formula for the latter is: You will remain in charge “donec aliter provideatur,” until we decide differently.
It seems clear that the dismissal has not arisen from any substantive reason involving the work of the congregation. No explanation of this kind has been made. The pope’s choice was made freely and executed the hard way, without delicacy. This behavior is not surprising for anybody who knows how Jorge Maria Bergoglio acted while provincial superior of the Jesuit Province of Argentina—he was dismissed from that position for being unduly authoritarian—and as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
I suspect that Cardinal Müller is upset about his dismissal, but in a sense may see his own beheading as a liberation. To write this article, I peeped into the confidential notes I had made during the last four years regarding the German cardinal and his relations with the reigning pontiff. The notes are the result of many private conversations with high-ranking people in the Vatican who enjoyed the cardinal’s friendship. It appears that Müller experienced life under Bergoglio as a sort of Calvary. This, despite Müller’s statements—he has been a good soldier to the end, and even beyond.
The first step of Müller’s Calvary was a disconcerting episode in the middle of 2013. The cardinal was celebrating Mass in the church attached to the congregation palace, for a group of German students and scholars. His secretary joined him at the altar: “The pope wants to speak to you.” “Did you tell him I am celebrating Mass?” asked Müller. “Yes,” said the secretary, “but he says he does not mind—he wants to talk to you all the same.” The cardinal went to the sacristy. The pope, in a very bad mood, gave him some orders and a dossier concerning one of his friends, a cardinal. (This is a very delicate matter. I have sought an explanation of this incident from the official channels. Until the explanation comes, if it ever comes, I cannot give further details.) Obviously, Mūller was flabbergasted.
It is important to remember that Bergoglio has long exhibited an animus against Rome, and against the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in particular. He has disliked the Curia because, before he became pope, Rome often refused to appoint the men he designated as possible bishops. And because, for reasons never known, Rome resisted appointing as archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez (whose nickname is “Tucho”), a theologian who is rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires. Tucho has written several books, among them one that is very strange for a theologian. It was published in 1995, and its title is Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing.
Fernandez became archbishop soon after the election of Bergoglio, and he is said to be the pope’s ghostwriter. He rebuked Müller when the latter said in an interview that the congregation he led had the role of giving “theological structure” to the pontificate. Fernandez said:
I read that some say that the Roman Curia is an essential part of the Church’s mission, or that a prefect in the Vatican is the sure compass to keep the Church from falling into light-mindedness—or that this prefect guards the unity of the Faith and grants the pope a serious theology. But Catholics, reading the Gospel, know that Christ gave to the pope, and to the bishops’ body, a special guide and illumination—not to a prefect, or to some other entity. When you hear things of this kind, you might even suppose that the pope is somebody who comes to cause trouble, and must be controlled.
Re-reading the notes I took in those four years, it is evident that Cardinal Müller and those working with him experienced great frustration, because the pope simply took no interest in their work. For the pope, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith simply did not exist. He did not ask for their cooperation; neither did he attempt any dialogue with them.
With Amoris Laetitia, the situation regressed dramatically. Müller, along with other cardinals, complained during the Curia’s spiritual retreat in 2016 that the pope had not employed “a collegial working method.” He said that his congregation had made at least two hundred observations concerning Amoris Laetitia, some grave, others light. These observations had received no answer at all. One of Müller’s hearers expressed astonishment that the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith knew nothing of how the document had progressed. Müller answered jokingly: “On doctrinal issues, we are the only ones never taken into account. On liturgical issues, Cardinal Sarah is certainly never informed …”
The relationship between Müller and the pope was never warm. A couple of years into the pontificate, it got worse. If I comb through my notes, I see that Francis was talking with Benedict XVI in 2015, and asked casually: “What if I change the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before the end of his mandate?” “You are the pope,” answered Benedict, “you do what you like.” “Very good, but …?” pressed Francis. “It would be a real revolution,” concluded Benedict, “something not feasible.” And there the matter rested, until this month.
Then came the dubia of the four cardinals: Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner (recently deceased). I think that the pope always suspected that behind this operation was Cardinal Müller, too. This suspicion—perhaps even the hypothesis that Müller was the real author of the dubia—might have put the seal on the decision to dismiss him.
Since the publication of the dubia, Müller has been in a very difficult situation. He has been split between loyalty to the pope, and loyalty to the magisterial teaching of the Church on marriage and the Eucharist. He knew well that the papal faction in the Curia wanted him to emerge as the main adversary of the pope—and he tried not to fall into that trap.
Last February in Germany, his latest book was published: The Pope, Mission and Mandate. Müller writes that as far as the Magisterium is concerned, the pope, too, might be wrong: for instance, if he omits to teach the Faith. No pope can change “the criteria concerning admission to the sacraments,” nor “give absolution, and allow the Eucharist, to a Catholic in mortal sin, who does not repent and resolve not to repeat that sin.” In that case, “the pope himself would sin, concerning the truth of the Gospel, and the salvation of the faithful, whom he would induce to commit a mistake.”
Prior to the publication of that book, something happened that deeply distressed the cardinal. It was the dismissal of three priests of his congregation. Müller received a letter from the Secretariat of State, ordering the priests’ dismissal but giving no reason for it. When Müller did not answer that letter, a second letter came. Müller requested an audience with the pope. Time passed, with dates for the audience repeatedly fixed and then changed at the last minute. Finally, Müller got his audience. “I received this letter,” he told the pope, “but before acting on it, I wanted to talk with you, and know the reason for the dismissal. They are good priests and good workers.” “I am the pope,” answered Francis, “and I need give no reason to anyone for my decisions. I said they must go, and go they must.” Then the pope stood up and held out his hand, indicating that the audience was over. Müller was deeply upset.
Then the same thing, more or less, happened to him. The cardinal told his story to a German newspaper, the Passauer Neue Presse. In an interview, he said that the pontiff had “communicated his decision” not to renew his appointment “within one minute” of the end of the last day of his five-year term as prefect. As in the case of the three priests, Müller was given no reason for his dismissal. “This style I cannot accept,” Müller declared, adding that in Rome, too, “the Church’s social teaching should be applied.”
Such a style of governance can hardly be considered democratic, or centered on dialogue, or collegial. Müller does not wish to be the leader of any anti-Francis movement. He states that he has “always been loyal to the pope” and wishes to remain loyal—“as Catholic, as bishop, and as cardinal, just as it is due.” Coherent to the last.
Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome.