Francis dismisses German hard-liner
vatican city — Pope Francis has pushed out the Vatican’s conservative doctrine chief, tapping a deputy instead to lead the powerful congregation that handles sex abuse cases and guarantees Catholic orthodoxy around the world.
Francis and German Cardinal Gerhard Müller had clashed, most recently over the pope’s cautious opening to letting civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion. Müller had insisted they cannot, given church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
In a short statement released Saturday, the Vatican said Francis had thanked Müller for his service. Müller’s five-year term ends this weekend, and he turns 70 in December. The normal retirement age for bishops is 75.
Francis could have kept him on but declined to do so. The Jesuit pontiff instead tapped the No. 2 in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Jesuit Monsignor Luis Ladaria Ferrer, to succeed Müller.
Francis’s refusal to renew Müller’s mandate marked his latest move to remake the Holy See’s hierarchy more in his mercy-over morals likeness, following earlier moves to replace hard-line conservatives in the Vatican high court and office responsible for the world’s clergy.
It was the second major shakeup this past week, after Francis granted another Vatican hardliner, Cardinal George Pell, a leave of absence to return to his native Australia to face trial on sexual assault charges.
Müller’s and Pell’s absences, coupled with Francis’s earlier demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke as the Vatican’s chief justice, represent a power vacuum for the conservative wing in the Holy See hierarchy.
Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had tapped Müller as doctrine chief in 2012. He was charged with carrying on Benedict’s efforts to rid the priesthood of those accused of raping and molesting children. But Müller’s handling of the abuse portfolio came under fire. During his tenure, the sex abuse caseload piled up as more and more victims came forward from Latin America, Europe and beyond. Last year, Francis confirmed there was a 2,000-case backlog, and he set about naming new officials in the congregation’s discipline section to process the overload.
But the greater clash with the pope concerned Francis’s 2016 document on family life “The Joy of Love,” in which he used strategically placed footnotes to offer a cautious opening to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion. Müller made clear he disagrees with Francis’s suggestion that any such decisions could be arrived at in the realm of personal discernment.
“A privatization of the sacramental economy would certainly not be Catholic,” he argued in a 2016 speech.