Pope Francis ousts another Vatican conservative

For the second time in a week, Pope Francis has removed a conservative Vatican powerhouse who opposed his warming of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.

The Vatican announced Saturday that the Pope would not be renewing the five-year appointment of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, basically the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog. Muller, a 69-year-old was appointed by fellow German Pope Benedict XVI. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict had also headed that Congregation under Pope John Paul II.

The ouster of Cardinal Muller is one of this Pope’s most important decisions yet since his 2013 election as he moves to make the church more inclusive at the parish level and less beholden to strict Rome’s rules.

Earlier in the week Francis granted a leave to a Muller top aide, Cardinal George Pell, another arch-conservative, who’s been charged with multiple sexual offenses by Australian police. Pell is Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and was the Pope’s chief financial adviser.

As doctrinal successor, Pope Francis elevated Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Muller’s No. 2 to the top spot. Ladaria is Spanish and older (73), but like the pope a member of the Jesuit order.

Muller had opposed Francis’ liberal moves, most publicly to allow remarried and divorced Catholics to receive communion without church annulments. Francis previously created a commission to study whether women could become church deacons. Muller said that was not possible.

Francis also suggested a church tribunal to try bishops who mishandled cases of sexual abuse. Muller said that idea had “legal” difficulties and it died.

Ed: I’ll add a couple of other points to Andrew’s good coverage above. Müller was one of the last pre-Francis figures still in seniors positions at the Vatican. Francis has, as is expected in pontiffs, slowly replaced people whose terms have expired with people more in line with his own approach. To put it in American political terms … conclaves have consequences. Also, the Congregation has much less influence than it once did, as Francis X. Rocca explained in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:

Cardinal Muller’s exit reflects the dwindling power of the congregation, a Vatican office that loomed especially large under John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who served as its chief for almost 24 years before becoming Pope Benedict. For two and a half decades, amid controversy over the modernizing changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council, the congregation issued a series of documents reaffirming traditional church teaching on topics including sexual and medical ethics, liberation theology and the church’s relations with other faiths.

Under Pope Francis—who has taken a highly informal approach to doctrine—the congregation’s teaching role has been practically neutralized; it has issued just one such document in over four years. Under previous popes, the congregation vetted all Vatican documents of any significance to ensure they were doctrinally sound. But under Pope Francis, the congregation’s suggested emendations to some of the pope’s most significant writings, including a major statement on divorce, have been ignored. The pope has also personally fired a number of congregation staff members against the wishes of Cardinal Müller.

Lacking influence within the Vatican, Cardinal Müller has made public statements increasingly at variance with Pope Francis, particularly with regard to the pontiff’s 2016 document Amoris Laetitia, in which he encouraged priests to show leniency toward divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of their first marriage.

It’s still a big deal, but the position hasn’t had the same level of influence it had prior to Francis. That’s the bigger deal.