In their famous final meeting, Pope Francis told Cardinal Gerhard Müller that he wanted to limit the time in office for heads of dicasteries in the Curia to five years, and that Müller was “the first to whom the rule would have applied.” And so Müller was dismissed despite his young age, which normally would have guaranteed him another five-year term.
In the Church, the rule is that at seventy-five years of age the bishops—and in theory also the heads of curial departments—must submit their resignation to the pope, who can decide whether to accept it. So now there are supposed to be two restrictions in place for people working in the Curia: a single five-year term, and an age-limit of seventy-five years.
Müller reported the pope’s new policy in July, but it does not seem that Francis has been eager to implement it since then.
Let’s look at a few cases. The latest concerns Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He was born on October 18, 1942, so he has just reached seventy-five years, yet the pope has not accepted his resignation. Since 2007 he has been president of the Pontifical Council of Culture. So he has had not one five-year term, but two.
In August, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, turned seventy-six. He was appointed more than four years ago, but he has already exceeded the canonical limit by one year.
A few days ago, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo was reconfirmed as chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Sorondo turned seventy-five on September 2017, and he has held his job at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences since 2001, when he was first appointed by St. John Paul II. Sixteen years, more than three terms!
These are not isolated cases. At the head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts we have Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio. He has been there since 2007 (two terms, then) and was born in 1938, seventy-nine years ago.
At the Congregation for Religious Life we find the Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, the Grand Inquisitor of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. In 2011 he began his job—so though he is just seventy years old, his mandate should be finished. But there is no mention of a replacement.
The prefect of the Congregation for Saints, the Salesian Angelo Amato, is nearly eighty years old, and has held his position since July 2008—so he should be out on two counts. Same goes for Leonardo Sandri, who was born in 1943 and has been prefect of Oriental Churches since 2007.
There is an element that unites all these people (except perhaps Sandri): They are all closely connected to the pope and have no doubts or dubia of any kind about Amoris Laetitia.
By contrast, there is the auxiliary bishop of Salzburg, Andreas Laun, who on October 13 turned seventy-five years old. That very same day, the pontiff accepted his dutiful offer of resignation. Last February, Laun had published on Kath.net a letter received a German priest in Latin America. The letter reads:
While questions about the divorced and remarried remain vague and unanswered, as often happens with the Holy Father, then it may happen that the following absurd situation occurs: A penitent [in confession] says he wants to continue living as husband and wife with his partner, and then he asks for absolution, referring to various bishops’ conferences and finally to the pope himself. As a priest I tell myself: “My conscience tells me I cannot give absolution, though the pope keeps the question open; so I cannot give you absolution.” But the man, referring to the pope, insists he wants to be acquitted, and receive communion. Do I then have to change the formula of absolution and say, “The pope absolves you from your sins in the name of the father, and so on. . . ”? For me this is absolutely absurd! But it is not the consequence of this?
Bishop Laun responded:
I’m afraid that this question contains a logic from which you can’t escape. . . . There is no such thing as a double truth, and to certain questions there is only one true answer—even when bishops, and entire conferences, give contradictory answers. Some answers are true, others are certainly false.
Here we may see the key to this apparently inconsistent application of the pope’s two rules. If the limit to a single five-year term and retirement at seventy-five seems to apply only to some, it is because a third rule is operating in the background. Those who question Amoris Laetitia must go; those who support it may stay. Pope Francis has spoken against an overly rigid or consistent application of law. Here we see the alternative.
Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?