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Getting Perspective: There’s Nothing New in the Five Questions Story

Image: Yet another downward spiral at the Vatican.

Yesterday, when we hit publish on the story about five alleged questions the pope asked Cardinal Müller before informing him his mandate as prefect of the CDF would not be renewed, I knew we were opening the door to backlash, outrage, and accusations. This is only the second time (that I can recall) that we’ve published an original story in which we’ve not been able to get direct corroboration from a first-hand source. (This was the first time.) Both times we have done so, I’ve calculated the risk that we could be wrong against the probability that we would be right. Both times, the stories were credible because of our sources and what we already knew about the topic at hand.

We’ve now received multiple points of denial on our story. Greg Burke, Director of the Vatican Press Office, was so urgent in his insistence that the “reconstruction is totally false” (interestingly, this is the first time he’s ever responded to my requests for a statement) that he sent an insistent followup less than six hours after the first, which hit my inbox at 2:33AM my time while I was asleep. (Evidently, story corrections are supposed to transpire far faster than dubia answers…) The personal secretary of Cardinal Müller has denied that these questions were put to Müller and said that our report was “doing damage” to the cardinal, though he did not explain how Müller being depicted as an orthodox prefect willing to stand his ground for the faith in a job he was already unceremoniously dismissed from would harm him. We’ve even heard through the journalistic grapevine that Cardinal Müller himself has seen the article, and was “shocked” by it.

Nevertheless, our sources — including the one who spoke to the eyewitness directly — continue to stand their ground, and I think it’s worth investigating the claims made in the report on their merits. We’ll set aside for the moment the different standards for journalism between the US and Europe in general, and more particularly, Italy and the Vatican, where the truth appears to be a far more malleable thing. And for the sake of argument, let’s also set aside the veracity of the report itself. What if the entire thing was, for reasons I honestly can’t puzzle out, a fabrication?

Why is the story shocking or outrageous? Is it because it tells us something we don’t already know? Hardly. With the exception of the insinuation-laden question to a cardinal prefect of the CDF about his position on women’s ordination (an already settled matter), every single piece of the puzzle we presented is a known quantity to our readers. Let’s look closer:

The overarching theme in the story is that the pope met with Müller in a very cold and curt way, and asked him a series of questions that either formed the basis of or affirmed his decision not to renew the cardinal’s mandate as prefect.

But we already know that the pope was brusque in his treatment of Müller. Müller himself said so:

Pope Francis, Cardinal Müller said, “communicated his decision” not to renew his term “within one minute” on the last work day of his five-year-term, and did not give any reasons for it.

“This style [sic] I cannot accept,” said Müller. In dealing with employees, “the Church’s social teaching should be applied,” he added.

We also know that in the past sixty years, no cardinal prefect of the CDF has been let go before retirement age, and that Francis’ decision to let Müller know at the last possible moment and with no rationale given was entirely out of the ordinary and would be construed by any reasonable person as rude.

So what of the questions that Francis is alleged to have asked? His own dubia, as it were? The simple asking of these questions does not in any way signal his personal interpretation of them or the answers he would give. Of course, the implication of getting answers in the negative to all of them as a basis to refuse renewal of Müller’s mandate would seem to indicate that the pope favors the positive answer in each case. But let’s take them one at a time and see what we know about the papal position on each:

1. ) “Are you in favor of, or against, a female diaconate?”

Hardly a groundbreaking question from a man who formed a commission that is studying this very issue, and who has now replaced the cardinal prefect with the man he personally chose to head up that commission. It is not at all unreasonable to think that the pope considers this issue favorably.

(Müller’s answer, “I am against it,” speaks favorably of his orthodoxy in this regard.)

2.) “Are you in favor of, or against, the repeal of celibacy?”

The question of revisiting the discipline on clerical celibacy has come up not infrequently during this pontificate. As we reported last year, “Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Brazil declared, after his private audience with Pope Francis in 2014, that the pope had encouraged him to further explore this matter and to be “courageous” in doing so.” Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian liberation theologian and consultant to Pope Francis, said last December that he believed the pope wants to perform a trial experiment on relaxing the discipline in his home country of Brazil after receiving a request from his friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes. Vatican experts Marco Tosatti and Sandro Magister have both indicated they see movement in this direction. The issue is being pushed by the largest lay Catholic organization in Germany at a time when Germany is facing a massive vocation crisis and the German bishops enjoy unprecedented influence in Rome. Francis himself has expressed in public statements an openness toward initiatives that move in this direction.

(Müller’s answer, “Of course I am against it,” speaks favorably of his orthodoxy in this regard.)

3.) “Are you in favor of, or against, female priests?”

This is the sole standout question, the one point of discussion that has ruffled the most feathers. And this is understandable, because the pope has made clear — that is to say, as clear as he ever makes things — that he believes the door to this question was closed by John Paul II. I suspect that this is an issue he will not try to push, despite his close adviser Cardinal Reinhard Marx indicating that Francis had praised the work of Bishop Fritz Lobinger, who has written in favor of ordaining women. But if a female diaconate is something Francis truly wants, is it really too much to believe that a Hegelian dialectic — a method he historically favors — could be an important part of the rhetorical advance?

(Müller’s answer, “I am very decisively against it,” speaks favorably of his orthodoxy in this regard.)

4.) “Are you willing to defend Amoris Laetitia?”

There is clearly nothing controversial about this question. Amoris Laetitia is the pope’s Magnum Opus and the single most divisive issue in the Church today. It is widely believed that Müller was initially favorable toward the dubia but opposed making the questions public — an opposition he has attested to in public commentary that very much undermined the force of the dubia cardinals’ work. Müller has always taken the approach of attempting to interpret AL as changing nothing when it comes to sacramental discipline — an untenable claim, but one that he clearly believes allows him to support the exhortation without compromising his moral position on communion for the “remarried”. Nevertheless, he has claimed that “Amoris Laetitia is very clear in its doctrine and [in it] we can interpret the whole doctrine of Jesus concerning marriage, the whole doctrine of the Church of 2000 years history,” and further, that in it “there is not any danger to the Faith”. It is thus reasonable to see why the pope might ask if Müller is willing to defend it, since the pope’s own affirmation of the Argentinian bishops approach, which allows communion for the remarried, is the one about which Francis says there can be “no other interpretation.”

(Cardinal Müller’s alleged answer, “As far as it is possible for me,” the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith replied: “there still exist ambiguities”, makes perfect sense in light of the above.)

5.) “Are you willing to retract your complaint concerning the dismissal of three of your own employees?”

We covered the astonishing story of the unilateral and unexplained dismissal of three priests from the CDF whom Müller himself considered among his best employees and did not want to see go. From our excerpt of Marco Tosatti’s description of the events:

The head of a dicastery has received the order to remove three of his employees (all of whom have worked there for a long time), and it was without any explanation. He [the Prefect] received these official letters: “….I request that you please dismiss ….” The order was: send him [each of them] back into his diocese of origin or to the Religious Family to which he belongs. He [the Prefect of the Congregation] was very perplexed because it was about three excellent priests who are among the most capable professionally. He first avoided obeying and several times asked for an audience with the pope. He had to wait because that meeting was postponed several times. Finally, he was received in an audience. And he said: “Your Holiness, I have received these letters, but I did not do anything because these persons are among the best of my dicastery… what did they do?” The answer was, as follows: “And I am the pope, I do not need to give reasons for any of my decisions. I have decided that they have to leave and they have to leave.” He got up and stretched out his hand in order to indicate that the audience was at an end. On 31 December, two of the three [men] will leave the dicastery in which they have worked for years, and without knowing the why. For the third, there seems to be a certain delay. But then, there is another implication which, if true, would be even more unpleasant. One of the two had freely spoken about certain decisions of the pope – perhaps a little bit too much. A certain person – a friend of a close collaborator of the pope – heard this disclosure and passed it on. The victim received then a very harsh telephone call from Number One [i.e., the pope]. And then soon came the dismissal.” [emphasis added]

It was clear from this initial report that Müller did not believe this decision was just, and the fact that his opinion on the matter was widely reported in the media would certainly give a basis to the pope to request that he retract such complaints if he felt they indicated insubordination. Müller later confirmed the story directly — and his opposition to the way the pope handled it — in his interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo. There is absolutely nothing far-fetched here.

(Cardinal Müller’s alleged response: “Holy Father, these were good, unblemished men whom I now lack, and it was not correct to dismiss them over my head, shortly before Christmas, so that they had to clear their offices by 28 December. I am missing them now,” is totally in character with his initial objections, and shows that on this issue at least, he is willing to stand his ground for the sake of justice.)

So that dispenses with the five questions. Nothing outlandish, nothing unexpected, no ground that has not already been tread. The fact that the pope is willing to arbitrarily and capriciously dispense with members of the CDF also segues nicely to him being willing to arbitrarily and capriciously dispense with the CDF prefect. There is no incongruity.

And if we’re being perfectly candid, the image of poor Cardinal Müller not realizing that the pope just dropped the microphone and walked out — and sitting there patiently waiting for a token of gratitude for his service until the papal prefect had to gently tell him it was time to go — is so characteristically Müller, that it frankly sells the entire story. Müller is known to have great esteem for the office of CDF prefect, and believes that he has unique gifts to offer the Church — contributions he takes very seriously and hopes to have recognized. He appears to have been characterstically unable to see that he has been treated with contempt from the very beginning of this papacy. If this portion of the report is a fabrication, it is an excellent one. It’s not a detail I could see someone thinking to add unless they knew the cardinal very, very well. This particular pattern of behavior in the cardinal is subtle, and really only emerges when one pays close attention to his mode of operation over time.

When I made the decision to run this story, I did it on the basis of trust and credibility. Trust for Dr. Hickson and her sources, and credibility of themes we’ve seen play out over and over and over again.

There was nothing new in our report. There was only the possibility of a more concrete affirmation of what we already know. And because of this, despite the denials — we’ve faced those before — we will continue to give our sources, who stand by their story, the benefit of the doubt unless new evidence emerges to the contrary.

This post has been updated.

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