Monday, July 02, 2012

At the "Holy Office," It's Müller Time -- Pope Taps Der Regensburger as "Grand Inquisitor"

Anticipated for months, it's finally official -- at Roman Noon this Monday, the Pope named Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accepting the retirement of Cardinal William Levada a year after the highest-ranking American in Vatican history reached the canonical age of 75.

With the appointment of the 64 year-old theologian -- the editor of the still-in-production "Complete Works" of Joseph Ratzinger -- Germans now occupy two of the Vatican's top three posts: a level of dominance that, until now, has been enjoyed only by Italians.

Made an archbishop on the move, by seniority Müller will be the first cardinal created by Benedict at his next consistory, which could come in Spring 2013, barring one exception: namely, should the pontiff appoint a new Secretary of State before then who hasn't already received the red hat.

Early last month, the most definitive sign of the impending appointment came when the Pope appointed Müller as a member of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity -- a combination that, among the Curia's senior members, has been held only by Levada. As early as January, however, German reports noted that the bishop had been taking refresher courses in Italian.

Once the "supreme" dicastery of the Roman Curia, the roots of the modern-day CDF date to 1542, when Pope Paul III established it as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. In the post-Vatican II reforms of Paul VI, the "Holy Office" was given its current name, with a rebooted mandate to encourage and promote theological study beyond its traditional function as the global church's lead guardian of orthodoxy.

A priest of Mainz, the new prefect spent most of his priesthood as a theology professor in Munich before his appointment to Regensburg in 1992. He has served as a member of the congregation since 2002.

Given common perceptions of the current pontificate, it's worth noting that Müller's appointment to lead the CDF survived an attempted subterfuge by some conservatives in Roman circles, who -- among other things -- sought to play up a longstanding friendship the new "Grand Inqusitor" has kept with a leading architect of liberation theology, the Peruvian Dominican Gustavo Gutierrez.

While, for most, any mention of the Bavarian city is likely to evoke one of the most controversial addresses of Benedict's seven-year reign, the 1.2 million-member Regensburg church is the closest thing the Pope has to a "home" diocese. The now-pontiff's last professorship before becoming archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977 was there, and his elder brother, Msgr Georg Ratzinger, directed its cathedral choir (the Domspatzen) from 1964 to 1994. A short drive away in the suburb of Pentling, meanwhile, is the small house off a cul-de-sac that Joseph Ratzinger built in the 1970s for himself and his brother with an eye to their retirement. (As Pope, Benedict was able to return there for a fleeting few minutes during his 2006 "homecoming" trip. In an undated photo, Muller is shown above with the Pope's brother at the Pentling house.)

Named by Benedict to succeed the Pope in the job he held for 23 years within days of his 2005 election, the LA-born Levada -- then the archbishop of San Francisco -- previously worked as a staffer at CDF from 1976-82. As the cardinal's tenure as prefect neared its close, the work of the congregation sparked twin firestorms in the American church and media as, citing "serious doctrinal problems," in late April the office imposed a wide-ranging oversight on the nation's leading umbrella-group of nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, then issued a high-profile warning in early June on a 2006 book on sexual ethics written by another sister, the retired Yale professor Margaret Farley RSM, a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Among CDF's relatively new areas of jurisdiction are several matters of sizable import to the church in the English-speaking world, above all deciding final outcomes to the worldwide church's clergy sex-abuse cases (a task entrusted to Ratzinger in 2001 after a Curial turf-fight), and the implementation of Anglicanorum coetibus, the Pope's 2009 initiative allowing for Anglican groups to enter the Catholic church as collective units, with their own liturgy and governing structures. In the space of just over a year, the latter development has arguably made for the Western church's largest boon of married priests in the millennium since mandatory celibacy became universal policy.

As a result of today's appointment, given that the congregation's top three officials will now be a German, a Spaniard (the secretary, Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ) and an Italian (the Milanese undersecretary Msgr Damiano Marzotto Caotorta), what effect the new dynamic will have on the Anglophone-centric issues is a key point to watch over the coming months. With Levada's departure, CDF's top English-speaking principal becomes the office's highly-regarded lead "prosecutor" on abuse cases, the Maltese promotor of justice Msgr Charles Scicluna.

With his ascent, the new prefect now likewise becomes president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, making him -- at least officially -- the prime overseer of the Vatican's doctrine-centric reconciliation effort with the Society of St Pius X.

As previously noted, however, the bulk of the heavy lifting on the top Benedictine priority will largely fall to the newly-named vice president of the office, the Bronx-born Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia OP, a former #3 at CDF.

At the same time, in a telling sign of the Müller appointment's likely reception in at least some traditionalist circles, while performing a priestly ordination over the weekend in the Regensburg diocese, one of the four SSPX bishops, the Spaniard Alfonso de Galarreta, reportedly "complained" about the Pope's choice for the post, citing a widely-trafficked assertion among opponents to the appointment that, in one of his theological works, Müller had denied the dogma of the Virgin Birth.

As head of the Holy Office, by custom Müller will also serve as president of the International Theological Commission and the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Beyond its Roman significance, with Germany already home to the Catholic world's two youngest cardinals -- Berlin's Rainer Maria Woelki, 55, and Munich's Reinhard Marx, 58 -- today's appointment further signals Benedict's determination to firmly establish a new generation of leadership in his homeland which will endure long past his pontificate's end. Two further opportunities toward that end aren't far ahead on the horizon as the German church's lead conservative and progressive figures of the last two decades -- respectively Cologne's Cardinal Joachim Meisner and Mainz's Cardinal Karl Lehmann -- are both well past the retirement age. (Notably, the latter prelate was Müller's doktorvater, overseeing his dissertation on Dietrich Bonhöffer, the Protestant theologian hanged by the Nazis.)

Speaking of retirement, while the new prefect-emeritus has long been understood as keen to return to the West Coast, Levada will remain a member of several key Curial offices until his 80th birthday in June 2016.

For many years, the cardinal has owned a condo in his hometown of Long Beach, sharing the getaway with his closest friend of nearly 60 years and successor in San Francisco, Archbishop George Niederauer, whose own transition from office is likewise expected in short order.

Referring to the nearing end of their ministries in his homily at the San Fran Mass marking Niederauer's golden jubilee of priesthood in late April, Levada quoted the poet Robert Browning: "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, 'A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!'"

Having ordained this year's class of priests and transitional deacons just yesterday in his now-former charge, the incoming prefect will take up residence in Rome in time for the Curia's mid-September return from the traditional summer recess. Müller was scheduled to hold a press conference on his appointment as the announcement was made in Rome.