THERE has been a marked change of gear in the Vatican in recent days. Two events have highlighted that: one very public, the other far less so.
The first was the surprise sacking of Cardinal Gerhard Müller from his job as the head of Rome’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the final day of his five-year term. The second was a long private meeting that Pope Francis had with 35 separated and divorced women from Toledo, during which he repeatedly told them that “the Church welcomes and embraces you.” Both events speak to the core of the Jesuit Pope’s central mission.
Three years ago, a senior Vatican insider offered me an interesting insight into the Pope’s attitude to the conservative Cardinal Müller, who was confirmed in office when Francis became Pope, and the rigorist Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom the new pontiff swiftly ousted as head of the Vatican’s supreme court.
The insider said this: “Francis wants an inclusive Church. Whatever your views — unless you’re a really awkward plotter, like Burke — this Pope wants you inside the tent. But Burke is mischievous, obstructive, and aggressive. Müller, though conservative, is open-minded, collegial, and a team player rather than a troublemaker. Müller is part of a loyal opposition; Burke has a touch of disloyalty about him. Jesuits have a very clear idea of where the line is on these matters.”
But now Cardinal Müller has been sacked, too. The divorced women of Toledo offer a clue to why.
One of the great symbols of Francis’s reforming impulse is his desire to lift the Church’s ban on the remarried taking communion. In his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he opened the door to that — to the outrage of conservatives.
Inside the Vatican, Cardinal Müller has been the most senior opponent to this pastoral liberalisation. He threw a dampener on it within six months of Francis’s election, pronouncing in the Vatican’s official newspaper that the idea “misses the mark”. Next he declared that there were “legal” difficulties in the Pope’s plan for a tribunal to try bishops who mishandled sexual abuse cases. Then, when the Pope announced a commission to study the possibility of women deacons, he flatly declared that such a change was “not possible”. Finally, he has backed four cardinals who have issued dubia (doubts) about Amoris Laetitia, and demanded Yes/No answers from the pontiff.
For some time, senior cardinals have been advising Francis to remove Cardinal Müller for undermining the papal office. For years, the Pope resisted. But now the axe has fallen.
Three years ago, one of the Pope’s closest allies, the Argentinian theologian Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández — the ghostwriter of many of Francis’s major documents — suggested that “if one day he should intuit that he’s running out of time and he doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up.”
The Argentinian Pope, now aged 80, appears to feel that this time has been reached.
Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: Untying the knots: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism, published by Bloomsbury at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50). www.paulvallely.com