Four-and-a-half years after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in the hope that a younger and “more energetic” successor might be able to renew the culture of the Vatican, recent events indicate that reform of the Roman Curia may take longer than he had hoped. In addition to institutional inertia, the process has been hampered by divisions among high-ranking churchmen over the proper interpretation of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), the pope’s governing style and an internet culture in which no conspiracy theory goes unstated.
On June 30, rumors began to circulate that Pope Francis would break with tradition and decline to renew, or at least to extend, the five-year term of 69-year-old German Cardinal Gerhard Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The official announcement came the following day, July 1, when the Holy See Press Office announced that Pope Francis had chosen Spanish Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, a Jesuit theologian who had served as secretary of that dicastery since his 2008 appointment by Pope Benedict, to replace Cardinal Müller. Cardinal Müller has confirmed that he will retire rather than take another position.
Cardinal Müller, who was appointed by Pope Benedict in July 2012, was the first sitting Vatican official Pope Francis asked to remain in office after his election in March 2013. In 2014, he was among the first group of men elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis.
The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also is responsible for investigating clergy accused of sexually abusing minors. As part of his response to this issue, Pope Francis created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014.
In March of this year, Marie Collins, one of the commission’s founding members and the last remaining abuse survivor among its membership, cited resistance within the Roman Curia to implementing the commission’s recommendations. She singled out Cardinal Müller in her criticism.
There were also reports of tensions directly between the pope and his inherited enforcer of doctrine, dating back to months after Pope Francis’ election, tensions which grew after the release of Amoris Laetitia in April 2016. Cardinal Müller publicly defended the document, such as in a January Italian TV interview in which he said there is no opposition between the Church’s teaching on marriage and the obligation of the Church to care for people in difficult situations, dismissing the idea that the pope had jeopardized Church teaching.
But he had reportedly revealed at the Curia’s spiritual retreat in 2016 that the CDF had submitted 200 queries concerning the draft text of Amoris Laetitia, none of which were addressed before the final version of the apostolic exhortation was released. Some of those queries concerned passages in the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia that have become the subject of controversy, most publicly in the formal request for clarification on five questions (or dubia) made by Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner on Sept. 19, 2016, to Pope Francis and Cardinal Müller. To date, no response to the request has been made by the CDF or the pope. In June, the four cardinals said publicly that they had requested an audience with Pope Francis in May but had not received a response.
In early July, Cardinal Müller told the German newspaper Passauer Neue Presse that his dismissal as prefect had “particularly upset” the 83-year-old German Cardinal Meisner, with whom Cardinal Müller spoke at length on the evening of July 4. A few hours later, Cardinal Meisner died while praying his breviary, spawning speculation online that the shock of Cardinal Müller’s dismissal had played a role in his death. The dismissal “moved and hurt [Cardinal Meisner] personally. He thought it would harm the Church,” Cardinal Müller said. “That naturally speaks for me.”
Pell and media narratives
Cardinal Meisner, Cardinal Müller noted, had expressed concerns about the “quarreling, disputes and discussion which were standing in the way of Church unity and the truth.” Those disputes played a role in how various factions in the Church reacted to the earlier departure of another top-ranking Vatican official, Australian Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.
One of the nine members of the Council of Cardinal Advisers created by Pope Francis in 2013, Cardinal Pell was granted a leave of absence at the end of June to return to Australia and defend himself against charges of sexual abuse dating back decades.
Opponents of Cardinal Pell’s doctrinal conservatism and his attempts to reform the Vatican’s finances were quick to note that it was unlikely that Cardinal Pell would ever return to Rome, while his defenders pointed out that previous charges of sexual impropriety against Cardinal Pell had been dismissed in 2002 and that new allegations had arisen only after Pell’s efforts at economic reform had upset important figures in both the Church and the secular financial world.
Pope Francis himself had scaled back the mandate of the Secretariat for the Economy in 2015 in response to criticism of the scope of Cardinal Pell’s authority by Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio. Appointed by Pope Benedict in 2007 as the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Cardinal Coccopalmerio, is seen in Rome as a close ally of Pope Francis.
Earlier this year, as public controversy swirled around the dubia raised by the four cardinals, Cardinal Coccopalmerio released a short book in Italian defending an expansive interpretation of the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia. The instruction therein, the cardinal told Inés San Martin, the Vatican correspondent for Crux, would allow a civilly divorced and remarried Catholic who acknowledged the “wrongness of the situation” to receive “access to the sacraments” of confession and Communion, even though his or her first marriage was “valid and indissoluble.”
Sex, drugs and lobbies
The divisions, real and perceived, between Cardinal Coccopalmerio and Pope Francis, on the one hand, and the dubia cardinals, Cardinal Pell and Cardinal Müller, on the other, took a disturbing new turn when a story first reported by the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano on June 28 made its way into the English-speaking media in early July. The lurid account of a Vatican police raid on a cocaine-fueled homosexual orgy in an apartment in the building that houses the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith breathed new life into long-standing stories of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican. Pope Benedict, it was alleged in 2013, had made his decision to resign after reading a report in December 2012 on the influence of this lobby and realizing that he no longer had the strength to fight it.
The first major story in English on the Vatican police raid, published by the Times of London, erroneously reported that the apartment “belong[ed] to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” while noting (correctly) that the CDF is “charged with, among other things, tackling clerical sexual abuse.” The article then tried to tie the scandal to Cardinal Pell’s sexual-abuse charges and Cardinal Müller’s dismissal.
English Catholic journalist Damian Thompson took to social media to point out that the facts do not support the claims. The apartment was occupied by the secretary to Cardinal Coccopalmerio. That secretary, Il Fatto Quotidiano had reported, was treated for a drug overdose in a hospital in Rome after the raid before being cloistered in a monastery in Italy.
Scott Richert is Our Sunday Visitor’s senior content network manager.