ROME – The Vatican’s former doctrinal chief in a new interview issued a strong critique of both a former papal ambassador who asked Pope Francis to resign, and the U.S. bishops’ decision to move on sex abuse without proper consultation from the Holy See.
In the interview, given to veteran Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli and published Nov. 27 on Italian site Vatican Insider, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke out against the polemics that have developed between different Church factions, and said he believes Francis is doing everything he can to address clerical sexual abuse.
“No one has the right to indict the pope or ask him to resign!” Müller said, referring to an Aug. 26 statement made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who served as papal envoy to the U.S. from 2011-2016, accusing Francis of ignoring warnings about the sexual misconduct of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and asking him to resign.
“Clearly it is possible to have different opinions on the existing problems and on the ways to resolve them, but we must discuss them according to the roles of each,” Müller said, adding that it is the cardinals who ought to help the pope or ask him for explanations.
However, these conversations “must take place in private, in the proper places, and without ever making a public controversy,” he said, adding that such “attacks” ultimately “end up questioning the credibility of the Church and her mission.”
Müller said he is personally convinced that the pope “is doing everything possible” to address the clerical abuse scandals and to push priests to adopt a “new spirituality,” acting according to Christ in pursuing what is best for children and young people.
Müller’s defense of Francis may come as a surprise by some, as he has typically been seen as opposed to the pontiff on matters of doctrine and the Church’s moral teaching. Müller, who oversaw the Vatican’s doctrinal office from 2012-2017, said he was surprised when his mandate ended to hear that it would not be renewed, and that Francis had been casual in how he handled it, without giving much notice.
At the time, many pegged the pope’s decision not to renew Müller’s mandate on difference between the two over Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which opened a cautious door for divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment to receive communion.
However, in his interview, Müller condemned the polarization inside the Church. Addressing allegations by some that the abuse crisis is being used as a weapon to fight internal battles, he said the entire ecclesial community must work together to overcome the sexual abuse crisis, which is “hurting the credibility of the Church.”
“Unfortunately, we have these groups, these ‘parties’ – the so-called ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives,’” he said. “We are all united in the revealed faith, and not by the prejudices of political ideologies. We are not a political entity.”
Müller voiced hope that Francis would make steps toward reconciliation, and suggested establishing a commission of close cardinal confidants to study the abuse crisis in the U.S. and make proposals that go beyond “oppositions, struggles between factions, mutual suspicions, and propaganda carried out by media campaigns.”
“We need a solid base of information: only in this way decisions can be made for the future,” he said, and stressed the need for personal spiritual conversion and renewal, saying priests who no longer pray or confess their sins are “mercenaries,” not pastors.
Referring to the pope’s decision to ask the U.S. bishops to put their abuse agenda on hold during their fall general assembly, Müller said the bishops and the pope must collaborate in addressing the issue based on existing norms.
“Not always all the bishops have collaborated with our department,” he said, referring to the Vatican’s doctrine department. “They have not informed as it is ought to be done.”
Noting how one of the main critiques of the U.S. bishops’ proposals is that the texts were sent to Rome at the last minute and raised several flags in terms of canon law, Müller asked, “why was it not sent earlier?”
“We must avoid confrontation and public controversy, and first discuss together to then arrive at a decision,” he said, adding that in his view, the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference should have consulted with experts in the doctrine office before making a move.
Müller also touched on the issue of homosexuality and the fact that it has been pinned by some as a cause of the clerical abuse scandals. In his comments, Müller said there is no such thing as “homosexuals as a category. There are concrete people who have certain tendencies, and there are temptations.”
“Our hearts are wounded by the original sin and we must overcome temptations with grace, the new life in Jesus Christ. Always calling sin a sin and recognizing it as such, so as not to fall into the corruption of those who sin and self-justify themselves.”
Clerical sexual abuse, he said, is above all an abuse of power. Müller said he doesn’t like to use the word clericalism, calling it “ambivalent” but referred to it as the “abuse of office” on the part of the priest.
Noting how Francis has also come under fire for making “wrong appointments” of bishops, decisions some have argued are being exploited by the media, Müller said Jesus himself named Judas as one of the twelve disciples closes to him.
“Jesus Christ himself, even though he knew everything thanks to his divine intellect, left freedom to the traitor Judas,” he said, stressing that each person is responsible for their own choices and sins.
While the pope and the bishops do their best to make the right choice, “the Pope is not responsible for what these bishops then do, as the bishops are not responsible for everything their priests do,” he said, but emphasized the need to learn from mistakes when they are made.