Blogs > Muller's swift dismissal from the CDF: a case of bad manners?

12 July 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

Muller's swift dismissal from the CDF: a case of bad manners?

It's fair to say that this Pope shows patience with those who disagree with him, but dispatches those who challenge his authority

There was no process, no formal hearing and no appraisal. Within one minute of their meeting starting, Pope Francis had informed Cardinal Gerhard Müller he was being relieved of his duties as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“I cannot accept this way of doing things. As a bishop one cannot treat people this way,” the former prefect of the congregation known as “La Suprema” complained afterwards in an interview with Bavarian daily 'Passauer Neue Presse’ on 6 July.  

Cardinal Müller said that curial officials should not be dismissed without explanation and was particular aggrieved that three of his team were removed earlier this year. The Pope, according to the cardinal, was not willing to discuss the reasons why. 

“The Church’s social teaching must also be applied to the way employees are treated here in Rome”, the cardinal went onto say in his interview. In other words: if Francis demands that businesses treat their employees fairly, then he needs to follow that with his own staff.

But Müller’s remarks also beg the question about whether prefects of Vatican departments are “employees” and what the working relationship is between the curia and the Pope. 

Bishops often stress that clergy in their dioceses are not employees and instead “office holders” and they are appointed to their tasks according to where their superior sees fit.  

The bottom line is that all those working in the Vatican serve at the pleasure of the Pope, “the Peter of today”, and are expected to support his mission. There is a Roman system in place which has the Pope at the top of it. In his interview Cardinal Müller did not suggested a new Vatican employment tribunal or new staff contracts for the curia. Presumably he still supports the status quo. 

On the other hand, natural justice requires those working in Rome to be treated fairly, and with courtesy. It could be argued that Francis’ swift dismissal of the cardinal, who still has six years to go before retirement, was a case of bad manners.

At the same time, if the argument goes that curial staff are employees then a crucial part of their job description is to work for the Pope. While there are many fulfilling this mandate, it’s no secret that a good portion have misgivings about the direction of this papacy. They may not actively work against it, they couldn’t be described as supportive.

In the case of Cardinal Müller’s congregation, there was no cardinal leading it until 1965: it was instead the Pope who was prefect given the Catholic understanding that it is the Successor of St Peter who preserves and defends the Catholic faith. 

The academically able cardinal-prefect, however, suggested his role was to provide “theological structure” to the pontificate because Francis is not a “professional theologian.” It was as if he saw his role as marking the Pope’s homework. 

During this papacy there has been an unprecedented level of open opposition to the Pope. Francis’ family life document, Amoris Laetitia, has been publicly called into question by cardinals and one has even threatened to formally correct him.

In Müller’s defence, the former prefect never aligned himself with the dubia letter writing campaign, and seemed genuinely torn between loyalty to the Pope and maintaining a unified approach on church teaching. He was also a supporter of liberation theology, having spent summers in Peru among the poor. While the department he was in charge of led the investigations against theologians involved in that movement, Muller went some way to healing that rift by welcoming the father of the liberation theology movement, Gustavo Gutierrez, into the congregation’s offices. And the cardinal even threw a poncho over his cassock for the event.   

Those who know the Pope say he operates rather like an old fashioned Jesuit superior when it comes to hiring, firing and moving people around. 

“It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems,” Francis confessed in an interview as Pope about his time in charge of the Argentinian Jesuits. 

He’s also been a leader whose tried to govern collegially by setting up a panel of cardinal advisers, known as the C9. During the synods of bishops he opened up discussion and told bishops to speak with “parrhesia” in other words from the heart. While some urged him to remove the top curial officials he inherited from Benedict XVI’s papacy, Francis has not undertaken a wide scale purge. He moves slowly, yet strikes quickly.

Now into the fifth year of his papacy, it's fair to say that this Pope shows patience with those who disagree with him, but dispatches those who challenge his authority.  


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