Most Catholics don’t know much about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but the CDF shapes what the faithful know and believe about the faith.
As the supreme body advising the Pope on doctrinal issues, and enforcing tenets of Catholic teaching, the powerful CDF, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed before he became Pope Benedict XVI, has reviewed and revised major Vatican documents, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the compendium of all the beliefs every Catholic holds.
The Congregation has also vetted major aspects of ecclesiastical life and practice, including prayers, liturgy, sacraments, and the conduct of parish affairs and religious orders. And it has disciplined leading clergy and theologians for deviating from doctrine in their pronouncements, writings, teaching, and pastoral and liturgical work.
In short, the CDF is the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer, using its powers to keep one billion Catholics abiding by Church doctrines in their thought, word and deed.
So, it’s no small deal that when the five-year term of German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller as CDF Prefect ends today, he looks set to be replaced. His rumored exit comes amid reported issues with Pope Francis and last year’s “Amoris Laetitia” (AL, or Joy of Love) apostolic exhortation on the family.
That would be like Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer or the nation’s Justice Secretary being replaced. The Church’s mind and life adhere to doctrine, just as Microsoft’s core activity is technology, and the government’s paramount function is to enforce and implement laws. Müller’s exit from CDF may well affect the very core of Catholic faith and practice.
The change at the top of the Vatican’s faith police comes amid continuing controversy over AL’s pronouncements on family morals, including its view that in certain cases, communion and absolution may be given to separated or divorced Catholics who take up new partners without their Church marriages being annulled.
Other family moral controversies have arisen under Francis. His July 2013 remark during a press conference on a flight to Rome, asking “Who am I to judge?” a gay Catholic, has led to speculation that the ban on homosexuality may be lifted.
There are also faith issues in Francis’s views on how the Church should regard the Protestant Reformation and the priest Martin Luther, who launched it in Germany half a millennium ago. Francis joined the 500th anniversary celebration of the Lutheran Church in Sweden last October, and has erected a statue of Luther in the Vatican.
And His Holiness has spoken against efforts to convert non-Catholics, seeming to set aside Jesus Christ’s own command at His Ascension to baptize all nations into His Church as the only instrument of salvation for souls.
So far, the CDF has not expressed any change in Church doctrines on these and other contentious aspects of Catholic belief and morality as espoused by Francis. Müller himself has said that Amoris Laetitia, including its controversial passages, can be understood in accordance with Church tradition and doctrine.
That reading of AL, the Cardinal argued, would not allow communion for divorced Catholics, and he had warned bishops not to adopt such an interpretation. However, Pope Francis himself wrote his fellow Argentine bishops saying that there were “no other interpretations” of the exhortation, but to allow communion for the divorced and remarried faithful.
The CDF head also found himself at odds with the Supreme Pontiff over Francis’s removal of three priests who have been in the CDF for long. When Müller asked why, noting that the priests were very competent, the Pope was said to have replied that it was his prerogative to do so. It was said that the three priests had privately expressed criticism of Amoris Laetitia.
When four senior Cardinals wrote Francis about five points of doubt or dubia in AL, requesting papal clarification, Müller said it was fine to raise issues, but objected to making the letter public. He also did not think any clarification was needed; nor should the Pope be subjected to “fraternal correction,” since there was no danger to the faith.
As of press time, no Vatican decision has been reported about whether Cardinal Müller would stay or go at the CDF, or who his replacement would be if he left.
What is certain, however, is that if a different prelate is put in charge of the Congregation, his new perspective and the interpretations and rulings it makes will affect the beliefs of one billion Catholic faithful.