In a Series of Strategic Moves, Pope Marginalizes Orthodox Prelates

Pope Francis gives a gift to Rev Jens-Martin Kruse during his November 2015 visit to Christuskirche in Rome. (CNS)
Pope Francis gives a gift to Rev Jens-Martin Kruse during his 2015 visit to Christuskirche in Rome. (CNS Photo)

Pope Francis visited the Lutheran Community of Rome on 15 November 2015. Among those who accompanied him was one influential cardinal: Cardinal Walter Kasper; not present was another influential cardinal: Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). These two cardinals, both German, are very different – the former a promoter of progressive “pastoral change,” the latter a defender of the 2,000-year-old moral teaching of the Catholic Church. A journalist from the radio station of the Diocese of Cologne, Germany, Domradio.delater observed in an interview with Cardinal Müller that it was not to Müller that the pope referred after being openly asked whether a Protestant could receive Holy Communion under certain conditions – but, rather, Cardinal Kasper. (The observation sounded more like an attempt to add insult to injury, and was met by Müller’s silence.) According to the website of the Vatican itself, Pope Francis, when asked whether the Protestant spouse of a Catholic could receive Holy Communion, responded as follows:

Regarding the question on sharing the Lord’s Supper, it is not easy for me to answer you, especially in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper! I’m afraid!

While most Catholic commentators later concentrated – understandably – on the troubling remarks of the pope about the possibility (under certain conditions) for Protestants to receive Holy Communion, few noticed the seeming snub or slap in the face of Cardinal Müller himself that had taken place there. The pope was obviously not at all “afraid” of the CDF Prefect — whose job it is to safeguard the Church’s teachings — when making his spontaneous and imprudent, controversial remarks. Instead, the pope effectively placed Cardinal Kasper over Cardinal Müller as a doctrinal authority, diminishing the Müller’s later efforts to correct the pope’s statement on the issue of Holy Communion in an interview with Edward Pentin.

As the Italian newspaper Il Foglio recently remarked, the pope also chose to ignore the important role of Cardinal Müller with regard to his own Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis decided that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn was to introduce and officially present his exhortation, and not the head of Doctrine, Cardinal Müller. As Il Foglio‘s journalist Matteo Mattuzzi pointed out, Pope Francis once again referred to — and deferred to — Cardinal Schönborn when asked about his exhortation during the 16 April 2016 airplane press conference with journalists. Pope Francis then said:

I recommend that you read the presentation of Cardinal Schönborn, who is a great theologian. He was the secretary for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and he knows the doctrine of the faith well. In that presentation, your question will find an answer.

Cardinal Schönborn was never, in fact, secretary for the CDF, but only a member. Why did Pope Francis not refer here to Cardinal Müller, who IS the current Prefect of the CDF? According to Mattuzzi, the answer is clear: Müller does not have much to say under Pope Francis, and his recommendations are not heeded.

Moreover, it is known that, only a few weeks before the publication of Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Müller made a public statement ruling out the idea of “remarried” divorcees having a permissible access to Holy Communion, saying that this is only legitimately possible if they loyally live as “brother and sister.” This is the exact opposite tendency of Pope Francis’ exhortation, in which he states that some “remarried” couples might even have to keep up their active sexual relations in order to preserve their “marital” fidelity, also for their children, and where he gives allowance for some of these couples even to have access to the Sacraments.

As the Vatican expert Guiseppe Nardi points out in a recent article on the German website, there is to be found a pattern in Pope Francis’ method of operation, namely the avoidance of listening to, and closely collaborating with, the more conservative prelates within the Curia. As an example, Nardi quotes a recent Canadian article of 18 April, according to which the Cardinal Marc Ouellet — whose job as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops is to make episcopal recommendations — is now ignored by Pope Francis on the nomination of bishops. This Journal de Montreal article quotes reliable sources who say that there are cases where Pope Francis did not nominate any of the three candidates formally proposed to him by Ouellet, and, rather, chose a completely different candidate not on the list. The recent appointments to the sees of Chicago, Madrid, and Sydney are offered as examples. As the Journal de Montreal says:

Every time, according to Mr. [Alain] Pronkin [a recognized authority in religious questions], the pope has directly chosen candidates with much more progressivist ideas – which are in line with his own image – and which are quite far away from those more conservative ones held [and recommended] by Cardinal Ouellet.

The journal then again quotes Pronkin who wonders whether Ouellet himself will soon be removed from his position, just as another cardinal was recently removed. (The reference here is, of course, to Cardinal Raymond Burke.)

This method of operation is in line with the observation of many concerned Catholics who see this pope to be sidelining or bypassing the traditional ways of cooperation within the Curia and, instead, establishing a “shadow Curia” at his residence Casa Santa Marta, where people like Archbishop Victor Fernández and Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J. (and his Jesuit confreres) go in and out, forming a kind of Para-Magisterium. As all principled revolutionaries do, Pope Francis also seems to try to avoid the established elites, bypassing them and thereby weakening them and fostering a new network of confidants (as, for example, during the 2015 Synod) who are less bound to a rooted and continuous tradition.

Those who, in the middle of this quasi-revolutionary process, try to defend the traditions and irreformable truths of the Catholic Faith will now likely have to expect more pressure and more opposition. For example, two of these prelates – Cardinal Gerhard Müller, as well as Bishop Vitus Huonder of Switzerland – find themselves now – as of 21 April – being criticized on the official website of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Müller and his CDF are being rebuked by a group of feminist and pro-homosexual theologians for his alleged lack of mercy, for his “lack of transparency” and for his “attitudes of absolutism of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe.” These theologians criticize the CDF with an explicit reference to the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetita.

Bishop Vitus Huonder of Chur, Switzerland – who was under heavy public pressure last year for quoting the Old Testament’s strict rebuke of homosexual practices – is now indirectly being criticized by the German bishops’ website for his having created “an atmosphere of unrest and division.” One will regrettably now need time, according to Martin Kopp, General Vicar of the Canton Urschweiz, to “re-establish trust, peace, and calm,” after Huonder steps down to retire upon his 75th birthday. According to, Huonder repeatedly caused “intense debates” due to his own strict comments with regard to “the protection of life, human sexuality, and the Catholic Church’s own constitution.”

All those prelates within the Church who still loyally hold to the Church’s doctrinal and moral teaching, and her practice of 2,000 years, will more and more have to prepare themselves for similar rebukes and criticisms. There is a new wind and expanding atmosphere in the Vatican, and one either goes along with the wind or he will likely be swept away – sooner or later. As with all revolutions, the conservatives have to ask themselves whether it is now worth remaining quiet and silent and acquiescent – and be bypassed or removed not too much later – or whether they will speak up now in defense of Christ Himself – even at the expense of being immediately removed.

The full and decisive Catholic witness is what will count. Certainly in light of eternity.

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