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Conservative Catholics Lose Another Voice in Rome

Pope Francis has let go Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican announced Friday. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Müller was the pope’s highest-ranking, most authoritative theological critic.

Their dispute over the correct understanding of a footnote in a recent papal document became a news item last year, illustrating their discord. Müller argued that, where the note was ambiguous, we should construe it in a way that makes it consistent with longstanding Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. Francis, the author of the document, indicated that he favored a different interpretation, one that relaxed the traditional teaching and reconciled it with the reality of civil divorce and remarriage in the 21st century.

The footnote dustup was just one more confirmation, not a revelation, of the disagreement between pope and prefect over the past four years. Müller had been appointed by Pope Benedict in 2012.

John Allen, a sensible veteran Vatican reporter, cautions against reading too much into Müller’s departure. First, he points out that Francis didn’t remove Müller but merely elected not to renew his five-year term at the CDF, although standard operating procedure has been to renew in such cases. Second, the man whom Francis named to be Müller’s replacement is “nobody’s idea of a flaming liberal.” For conservative Catholics, it could have been worse.

The news should still trouble them, however. Müller had acquired stature in his role. His replacement is less well known. He carries a weaker megaphone. As for his reputed conservatism, the key is not his ideology but his temperament, according to Italian historian Roberto de Mattei: What matters is whether the prefect will comply with the pope’s “plan of ‘irreversible reform,’” not whether he’ll agree with it.

Müller’s successor is Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, a Spanish Jesuit and, until now, the second-ranking official at the CDF. He was appointed last year by Francis to serve as president of the newly established Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, whose name suggests a particular conclusion and recommendation. Ordination of women to the diaconate will be the first step toward their ordination as priests and bishops, or so some liberal Catholics hope. Müller opposes ordination of women even to the diaconate.

His is a losing argument when cast in negative terms like that, reflecting only the other side’s view of the matter. Inside the Church as well as outside it, institutions — traditional marriage, the male priesthood — that rest on an acceptance of sexual complementarity as a biological fact and a social good are opposed by those for whom the concept does not compute. Their frame of reference is defined by the binary of inclusivity and exclusivity.

They reflect the norms of the culture they inhabit. Conservative Catholics have done little if anything to persuade them to slow down and try to appreciate, on its own terms, the longer-standing anthropology that starts with the ur-fraternities: the twelve sons of Israel, the twelve apostles. The twelve knights of the round table are a sort of commentary on the biblical models. Read a little Lionel Tiger. Imagine a culture in which the masculine character of Temple service is as natural, agreeable, and little remarked as that of the Red Sox or Patriots.

A lot of Catholic conservatives appear to assume that, on issues relating to sexual difference and family formation, the West is gripped by a madness that has crept into the Church but will pass, like the flu, and that the proper response is to wait it out. That strategy may be sound from a perspective of millennia, but in the near term, the next several years, the outlook for conservatism in Catholic doctrine and discipline is not brilliant. Four hundred eighty-three years after Canterbury left Rome, Rome is emulating it pretty hard.

Traditional Catholics, who are to Catholicism approximately what Orthodox Jews are to modern Judaism, frown at the many signs that on doctrine the Church is drifting toward Anglicanism, but they tend to see that movement as only the delayed aftereffect of the ur-catastrophe that was the rewrite of the Roman missal in 1969. Lex orandi, lex credendi: How we pray determines what we believe.

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