A new prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

By Christopher Lamb | Chicago Catholic
Monday, July 10, 2017

Pope Francis speaks as he celebrates Mass with about 50 cardinals in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican June 27. The Mass marked the pope's 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — The Palazzo Sant’Uffizio is a large, imposing building where the grid-iron — covered windows hark back to the days when it housed the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
Today the building — which you arrive at by turning left at the colonnades as you face St. Peter’s Basilica — is home to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Entering the 16th-century palazzo can be an overawing experience.
For years its job has been to safeguard Catholic doctrine, which has in recent years included investigating theologians accused of crossing over the boundary lines of church teaching. Historically the department also held an influential role across the Roman Curia, earning it the nickname “La Suprema.”
Under Pope Francis, all this has changed.
The investigations by the congregation have virtually ground to halt, with the pope telling a group of religious early on in his papacy to “not worry” if they receive a letter from the once-feared congregation.
Under Francis the department is no longer the major point of reference internally within the Roman Curia. That role has now shifted firmly over to the Secretariat of State, the other important Vatican body, which acts both as the Holy See’s external affairs arm and as an interlocutor between other departments.
The reduced influence of the doctrinal congregation — known as the CDF — was further underlined by the pope’s decision not to renew Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s term as its prefect on July 2.
An academically accomplished theologian, the German prelate has now publicly stated that he was moved off his post with little explanation. Aged 69, the cardinal was six years away from retirement age, and in the past someone in his position might have expected to serve out his time in office.
The pope did, however, make it clear to the cardinal that his time was up because he had served one five-year term as prefect, and Francis decided not to give him a second one. It is the pope’s wish that those leading Vatican departments serve no more than a five-year term, which has now raised the question about how many others might be leaving.
Francis’ approach has shaken up the working culture in the Roman Curia, given that in the past officials held their posts for extended periods of time. Of course, those who work at the Vatican serve at the pleasure of the pope, so it is largely up to him how long they stay.
On the same day that Cardinal Müller left, the pope announced his successor at the CDF, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, a Spanish theologian and a Jesuit, the same religious order as Francis.
Archbishop Ladaria, who served as CDF secretary, is a theologian known for trying to occupy the theological center ground, who tries to find a third way between traditionalists and progressives. Appointed to the CDF by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, he is an expert in Christology and patristics, the study of the early church fathers, and was a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where many priests and religious study. There he was known to generously give time to students, although he was regarded as a bit of a taskmaster when it came to oral exams.
Given Francis’ approach, the new CDF prefect will be required to find a new role for his department. One of those could be as a mediator between differing interpretations of the pope’s family-life document, “Amoris Laetitia,” particularly on the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion. Cardinal Müller was concerned that some bishops have argued Francis’ text gives the green light, while others say it’s still red.
While in the past the congregation would have given a definitive interpretation, perhaps the new department will offer keys for interpretation, helping bishops’ conferences draw up their own local guidelines.
There could also be a role for the department in becoming a moderating voice, stepping in where church teaching is used to justify political agendas or the refusal of sacraments to particular groups.
As Francis’ reforms of the Roman Curia slowly move on, the church last week said goodbye to a man who undertook a major shakeup of one area of Vatican activity: communications. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who died July 5 at the age of 80, was the longtime spokesman for Pope John Paul II, making him one of the most visible laypeople in the church during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Polish pope and now saint called Navarro to his job over lunch in 1984, and the Spanish journalist set about transforming the Holy See communication operation. He was responsible for constructing the Vatican’s present-day press room, while helping to frame the message of John Paul II’s historic papacy. Navarro had virtually unprecedented access to his boss — not a privilege afforded to every spokesman — meaning he became one of the pope’s most trusted aides, something akin to a chief of staff.
Navarro, renowned as a good listener and decisive leader, took his time making changes, but he left a legacy. There’s a lesson there for those pushing for reforms in Rome.


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  • congregation for the doctrine of the faith

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