UPDATE: When this story was first issued, we had not yet received any response from Cardinal Müller, his secretary, or Greg Burke, Director of the Vatican Press office. Burke has since responded to say that the reconstruction of the events of the Müller meeting as described below is “totally false”.
The personal secretary of Cardinal Müller has responded to OnePeterFive in an e-mail, saying that the pope did not put these five questions to Cardinal Müller and adding that this OnePeterFive article was doing damage to Cardinal Müller. However, he did not explain how so, particularly considering that the version of events reported to us by our sources paint Müller in a favorable and orthodox light.
After Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, revealed that he had personally spoken by phone with the now-deceased Cardinal Joachim Meisner about his recent dismissal, and that this conversation had taken place the night before Meisner’s sudden death on the morning of 5 July, several well-informed sources in Europe in communication with me all used the same expression, namely, they speculated that perhaps Cardinal Meisner had “died of a broken heart.” In light of the following disclosures about the content of the 30 June meeting between Pope Francis and Cardinal Müller, we might be even more inclined to believe that this was the case – at least as a moral possibility.
The following information comes from the report of a trustworthy German source, who spoke to OnePeterFive on condition of anonymity. He quotes an eyewitness who recently sat with Cardinal Müller at lunch in Mainz, Germany. During that meal, Cardinal Müller is alleged to have disclosed in the presence of this eyewitness certain information about his final meeting with the pope, during which he was informed that his mandate as Prefect of the CDF would not be renewed.
According to this report, Cardinal Müller was called to the Apostolic Palace on 30 June, and he thus went there with his working files, assuming that this meeting would be a usual working session. The pope told him, however, that he only had five questions for him:
- Are you in favor of, or against, a female diaconate? “I am against it,” responded Cardinal Müller.
- Are you in favor of, or against, the repeal of celibacy? “Of course I am against it,” the cardinal responded.
- Are you in favor of, or against, female priests? “I am very decisively against it,” replied Cardinal Müller.
- Are you willing to defend Amoris Laetitia? “As far as it is possible for me,” the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith replied: “there still exist ambiguities.”
- Are you willing to retract your complaint concerning the dismissal of three of your own employees? Cardinal Müller responded: “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.”
Thereupon the pope answered: “Good. Cardinal Müller, I only wanted to let you know that I will not extend your mandate [i.e., beyond 2 July] as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith.” Without any farewell or explanation, the pope left the room. Cardinal Müller at first thought that the pope left in order to fetch a token of gratitude, and thus he waited patiently. But, there was no such gift, nor even an expression of gratitude for his service. The Prefect of the Papal Household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, then had to explain to him that the meeting was over, and that it was time for him to leave.
At the time of this writing, we have not been able to obtain confirmation of these events from Cardinal Müller, nor from his secretary, to whom we reached out for comment. Similarly, we requested a comment from Greg Burke at the Vatican Press Office has denied the story, saying the reconstruction of events as we have presented it is “totally false”.
If this report is true – and, given the sources, we have little reason to doubt it – we can well imagine why Cardinal Meisner would have been distressed after hearing about this meeting in the hours before his death. Did these five questions with their yes or no answers, if indeed they were asked of Cardinal Müller, constitute a sort of reverse dubia? Were the Cardinal’s responses, insofar as they were in accordance with orthodox Catholic thought, the reason he was not asked to continue in his role as Prefect of the CDF? Of the five questions, three (female diaconate, priestly celibacy, and the promotion of Amoris Laetitia) have been widely discussed as part of the pope’s “reform” agenda. (It seems worthy of mention in this regard that Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., who has been tapped as Müller’s replacement as CDF Prefect, was appointed last year as President of the Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women.) But is the female priesthood really expected to be reviewed in relation to the female diaconate, even though Pope Francis has already personally affirmed the understanding that Pope John Paul II ruled definitively against the possibility? And what of the final alleged question — the one pertaining to the pope’s dismissal of three priests from the CDF last year without cause? If such a question were asked, was it merely a test of unquestioning obedience? Recall that the pope’s reported answer, when asked by Cardinal Müller about the dismissal of these three priests, was simply to say, “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.”
In an interview with German newspaper Passauer Neue Press, Müller revealed additional information that appears to support the above-described abruptness of his final meeting with the pope:
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.
As our own report on Cardinal Müller’s departure documented, he has suffered a number of indignities during his tenure as CDF prefect under the present pontificate. Nevertheless, Müller has taken pains since the announcement of his departure to give the public appearance that his relationship with the pope was not strained. “There were no differences between me and Pope Francis,” Müller told a local German newspaper during the same visit to Mainz when he was alleged to have revealed to his dining companion the context of his final meeting with the pope. It is not entirely clear if Müller is expressing a lack of conflict between himself and the pope as a sign of solidarity, or in order to emphasize the unexpectedness of the pope’s decision not to renew his term. Whatever the case, he has sought in public to downplay the significance of his departure.
There is little about Müller’s dismissal from one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent ecclesiastical offices that isn’t unusual. As respected Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti noted in his important July 7 essay for First Things, Müller’s departure from the position at age 69 — well before the mandatory retirement age — was “a gesture unprecedented in the Church’s recent history.” Over the past six decades, Tosatti noted, “prefects of the Church’s most important congregation (it has been called La Suprema) have retired due to age or health reasons, or have been called, in the case of Joseph Ratzinger, to become the pope.” None during that time has suffered the indignity of simply being unceremoniously let go.
One anecdote recounted by Tosatti from his own conversations with friends of the German cardinal gives particular credence to the emerging picture that Pope Francis has long treated the prefect emeritus with contempt:
It appears that Müller experienced life under Bergoglio as a sort of Calvary. This, despite Müller’s statements—he has been a good soldier to the end, and even beyond.
The first step of Müller’s Calvary was a disconcerting episode in the middle of 2013. The cardinal was celebrating Mass in the church attached to the congregation palace, for a group of German students and scholars. His secretary joined him at the altar: “The pope wants to speak to you.” “Did you tell him I am celebrating Mass?” asked Müller. “Yes,” said the secretary, “but he says he does not mind—he wants to talk to you all the same.” The cardinal went to the sacristy. The pope, in a very bad mood, gave him some orders and a dossier concerning one of his friends, a cardinal. (This is a very delicate matter. I have sought an explanation of this incident from the official channels. Until the explanation comes, if it ever comes, I cannot give further details.) Obviously, Mūller was flabbergasted.
Like Marco Tosatti, we have sought but may never be able to provide an explanation of the incident of the five questions from official channels. We can only say that our sources are not given to idle speculation. They are confident that the events transpired as they have been described.
For now, it is enough to note that under the present circumstances, even the skeptical would have a hard time dismissing a report of such an incident. The stories coming out of the Vatican are more incredible each day — and even the worst of them seem not to merit comment — or more importantly, correction — in the eyes of Church officials.
Steve Skojec contributed to this story. The story has been updated.