Bellwether

Vatican shakeup - behind the sweet smile, Pope Francis flexes his muscle

John Moody

There are two ways of looking at the Roman Catholic Church under the rule of Pope Francis: an increasingly tolerant, inclusive, mercy-based charity, or a spectator blood-sport between ideological rivals who will reconcile their differences. Under the second scenario, Francis just scored what might be a knockout punch.

By removing Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Francis neutralized one of the few princes of the church whose job it was to call out the pope for his seemingly endless appetite for doctrinal change. Müller, who was installed in his job by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, represented the conservative wing of the church that has looked askance at the current pontiff’s disregard for centuries-old tradition and restrictions.

Making matters even worse, Francis replaced Müller with Archbishop Luis Ladaria, who like Francis is a Jesuit. That reduces the likelihood that the pope will meet opposition from the one office in the church with the duty to interpret Catholic magisterium – that is, spreading doctrinal teaching to the church’s billion plus adherents.

Ever since Francis assumed the Throne of Peter in 2013, he and Müller seemed to be on a collision course. Soon after becoming pope, Francis floated the idea of letting divorced Catholics who had remarried outside the church receive Holy Communion. In his role as chief interpreter of church doctrine, Müller let the pope know that was a non-starter.   

Nor was he pleased when Francis, answering a question about his feelings toward gay Catholics, shrugged and said, “Who am I to judge?” When Francis announced that he wanted to create a commission to discuss allowing women to become deacons – a job one step beneath the priesthood – Müller effectively quashed the idea. And when Francis was preparing his encyclical Amoris Laetitia, or the Joy of Family, Müller’s proposed alterations were simply ignored.

No chief executive can be expected to put up with insubordination for long, and Francis is within his rights to move Müller out of his position. But the pope, despite his sweet smile and crowd-pleasing talk about making the Catholic Church more tolerant and focused on the poor, has created a serious division among the faithful. His suggestions that affluent Catholics give away their money, or that capitalism is a sin don’t wear well with some in the United States, which is by far the largest financial contributor to the Church’s coffers.

If the pope intends to keep removing conservative thinkers from the Vatican’s inner ranks, he might find there is a price to pay for imposing his socialist agenda on an institution that has, after all, gotten along for more than 2,000 years without him.

John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."