Pope Francis and the changing role of the doctrine congregation

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Pope Francis is pictured during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 13, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — For more than three decades, during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith occupied a crucial role inside the Vatican.

This body policed theologians, set down the boundaries for Catholic doctrine and, from 2001, handled the cases of priests accused of clerical sexual abuse.

Under Pope Francis, however, the role of the doctrine body has changed. Weeks after his election, the new pope told a group of religious sisters not to “worry” if they receive a letter from the CDF.

“Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward,” he told them. Since then, the investigations into theologians and religious have dried up, while some of the major proponents of liberation theology, so long viewed with suspicion by the Vatican’s doctrine body, have been rehabilitated.

Pope Francis recently told a group of Central American Jesuits that he had concelebrated a Mass with the Peruvian Dominican Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of liberation theology’s founding fathers, who had once been under investigation by the CDF. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also celebrated the Mass in the chapel of the Santa Marta residence in the Vatican.

This week it emerged that the pope had rehabilitated Father Ernesto Cardenal, a 94-year-old priest-poet from Nicaragua whom John Paul II publicly reprimanded in 1983 after he took a government position with the then Nicaraguan government. Cardenal had been banned from celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments.

Aside from these cases, the role of doctrine in the church has taken on a different tenor under this pontificate. For Pope Francis, the body of church teaching should be life-giving rather than a cloak to be thrown over people.

This approach and the lessening of the influence of the doctrine body has unsettled some in the church, including Cardinal Müller, who this month issued a “manifesto” of faith. With many references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the manifesto is, for the most part, something a majority of Catholics will agree with. The cardinal, an internationally recognized theologian, argues that ignorance of the faith means many Christians are missing the path to eternal life.

But he also says that keeping silent or failing to teach doctrine clearly means falling into the “fraud of the anti-Christ,” and that divorced and remarried Catholics and non-Catholic Christians should not receive Communion. The pope’s family life teaching, “Amoris Laetitia,” offered a pathway for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Here we see an old tension in the church surfacing between those who argue for a faith based on doctrinal “propositions” and those who argue that doctrine — while essential — flows from faith in God.

Francis has favored the latter. He has warned priests against “making idols of certain abstract truths,” said Catholics need to do more than simply recite the catechism and that faith is “not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”

If this pope has reduced the influence of the CDF, it could also be argued he has returned its classical role as an office that serves the papacy. Established in 1542 as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, it was presided over by the pope himself until 1968, with the department being led by a secretary. Pope Paul VI changed its name in 1965, and the role of prefect of the CDF is a relative innovation. 

In the early 21st century, Pope Francis wants the doctrine body to step up its efforts in handling abuse cases. It is the CDF that conducts the canonical trials of priests accused of abuse, and which announced on Feb. 16 that former cardinal and archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick had been removed from the clerical state. Since 2001, all cases of priests accused of abuse have been referred to Rome, and the church trial process, including the gathering of evidence and appeals, takes time. 

For years, the section that deals with these cases has been understaffed and faced with a long backlog of work. To remedy this, Francis has appointed the archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, a longtime former prosecutor of cases, to be “adjunct secretary” of the CDF to work on cases while also beefing up the number of staff members handling the trials.

Archbishop Scicluna told journalists ahead of the crucial Feb. 21-24 abuse summit that there are now 17 canon lawyers (up from 10) handling clerical sex abuse cases at the discipline section of the CDF, adding that cases are being expedited.  


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